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What Is Acute Bronchitis?

Outline of respiratory system showing the lungs and airways

Acute or short-term bronchitis last for days or weeks. It occurs when the bronchial tubes (airways in the lungs) are irritated by a virus, bacteria, or allergen. This causes a cough that produces yellow or greenish mucus.

Inside healthy lungs

Air travels in and out of the lungs through the airways. The linings of these airways produce sticky mucus. This mucus traps particles that enter the lungs. Tiny structures called cilia then sweep the particles out of the airways.

Illustration of a healthy airway. It is open with air moving in and out easily

Healthy airway: Airways are normally open. Air moves in and out easily.

Illustration of healthy cilia and mucus lining the airways

Healthy cilia: Tiny, hairlike cilia sweep mucus and particles up and out of the airways.

Lungs with bronchitis

Bronchitis often occurs when a cold or the flu virus. The airways become inflamed (red and swollen). There is a deep “hacking” cough from the extra mucus. Other symptoms may include:

  • Wheezing

  • Chest discomfort

  • Shortness of breath

  • Mild fever

A second infection, this time due to bacteria, may then occur. And airways irritated by allergens or smoke are more likely to get infected.

Illustration of an inflamed airway showing excess mucus that narrows the airway

Inflamed airway: Inflammation and extra mucus narrow the airway, causing shortness of breath.

Illustration of impaired cilia.

Impaired cilia: Extra mucus impairs cilia, causing congestion and wheezing. Smoking makes the problem worse.

Making a diagnosis

A physical exam, health history, and certain tests help your healthcare provider make the diagnosis.

Health history

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms.

The exam

Your provider listens to your chest for signs of congestion. He or she may also check your ears, nose, and throat.

Possible tests

  • A sputum test for bacteria. This requires a sample of mucus from the lungs.

  • A nasal or throat swab for bacterial infection.

  • A chest X-ray if your healthcare provider thinks you have pneumonia.

  • Tests to check for an underlying condition, such as allergies, asthma, or COPD. You may need to see a specialist for more lung function testing.

Treating a cough

The main treatment for bronchitis is easing symptoms. Avoiding smoke, allergens, and other things that trigger coughing can often help. If the infection is bacterial, you may be given antibiotics. During the illness, it's important to get plenty of sleep. To ease symptoms:

  • Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.

  • Use a humidifier, or breathe in steam from a hot shower. This may help loosen mucus.

  • Drink a lot of water and juice. They can soothe the throat and may help thin mucus.

  • Sit up or use extra pillows when in bed to help lessen coughing and congestion.

  • Ask your provider about using cough medicine, pain and fever medicine, or a decongestant.

Antibiotics

Most cases of bronchitis are caused by cold or flu viruses. Antibiotics don’t treat viral illness. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed increases your risk of getting an infection later that is antibiotic-resistant. Your provider will prescribe antibiotics if the infection is caused by bacteria. If they are prescribed:

  • Take the medicine until it is used up, even if symptoms have improved. If you don’t, the bronchitis may come back.

  • Take them as directed. For instance, some medicines should be taken with food.

  • Ask your provider or pharmacist what side effects are common, and what to do about them.

Follow-up care

You should see your provider again in 2 to 3 weeks. By this time, symptoms should have improved. An infection that lasts longer may mean you have a more serious problem.

Prevention

  • Avoid tobacco smoke. If you smoke, quit. Stay away from smoky places. Ask friends and family not to smoke around you, or in your home or car.

  • Get checked for allergies.

  • Ask your provider about getting a yearly flu shot, and pneumococcal or pneumonia shots.

  • Wash your hands often. This helps reduce the chance of picking up viruses that cause colds and flu.

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • Symptoms worsen, or new symptoms develop.

  • Breathing problems worsen or  become severe.

  • Symptoms don’t get better within a week, or within 3 days of taking antibiotics.

 

Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Last Review Date: 6/18/2014
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