Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes, the airways that conduct air into the lungs, become inflamed and produce mucus

People with bronchitis experience symptoms such as coughing, often with mucus, and soreness in the chest. Bronchitis is usually caused by viruses and typically develops from a common cold or other type of respiratory infection.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. It can develop in people of all ages, although certain habits and health conditions may increase your risk. Most of the time, it resolves on its own, although medications are available to treat the symptoms it causes.

Below, we’ve listed the symptoms of bronchitis, as well as the differences between acute and chronic bronchitis. We’ve also explained how bronchitis develops, how healthcare professionals can diagnose bronchitis and the treatment and relief options that are currently available. 

Symptoms of Bronchitis

Bronchitis can cause a range of symptoms, the most well-known of which is cough. Common symptoms of acute and chronic bronchitis include:

  • Frequent coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • A whistling sound when breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness and discomfort in the chest

The cough from bronchitis can be “wet” (with mucus and, in some cases, white blood cells) or “dry,” without any mucus or other substances.

If you have bronchitis, you may experience all or just a few of these symptoms. The amount of time for which these symptoms last, as well as the onset of your symptoms, may vary based on whether you have acute or chronic bronchitis. 

That said, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and also develop a fever of 100.4℉ or a cough with bloody mucus, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, or symptoms that last more than three weeks, you should call your healthcare provider.

Acute Bronchitis vs. Chronic Bronchitis

As we mentioned above, bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis, also known as a chest cold, is a short-term illness that usually develops from a cold or other type of respiratory infection. Influenza (flu) is one of the most common causes of acute bronchitis.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis usually last for less than three weeks. You may experience the symptoms listed above, as well as other symptoms related to a viral infection, such as mild headaches, body aches and fatigue.

Coughing and other symptoms from acute bronchitis can be unpleasant. This type of bronchitis can happen suddenly, without much warning. It can also linger for several days, even after you have recovered from the cold, flu or other infection that caused it to develop in the first place.

Chronic bronchitis is a form of bronchitis that develops over time. Unlike acute bronchitis, this form of bronchitis can occur on a regular basis. Over time, the symptoms of chronic bronchitis may improve or worsen. However, they will never completely disappear.

Chronic bronchitis is one of several lung conditions included under the umbrella term “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” or COPD. 

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis are largely the same as those of acute bronchitis. As this form of bronchitis isn’t caused by a viral infection, people with chronic bronchitis typically don’t experience symptoms such as headaches, body aches and/or fatigue.

Chronic bronchitis may also cause muscular weakness in the lower body; swelling of the feet, ankles and legs; and weight loss.

What Causes Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is typically caused by a viral infection, such as the common cold or influenza (flu). In some cases, bronchitis can also develop as a result of infectious bacteria that causes respiratory illness, such as Chlamydia pneumoniae or Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, typically develops as a result of long-term exposure to irritants that irritate and damage the lungs and airways.

The most common irritant that can cause chronic bronchitis is tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco. Although smoking is a leading cause of chronic bronchitis, it’s also possible for non-smokers to develop this condition.

Other common irritants that can contribute to chronic bronchitis include certain types of dust, chemical fumes, air pollution and secondhand tobacco smoke.

Who Is Most at Risk?

Acute bronchitis, which typically occurs as a result of a viral or bacterial infection, can affect anyone. 

You may have an elevated risk of developing this type of bronchitis if you live in a crowded or polluted environment, have a history of smoking, have a history of asthma or even suffer from allergies.

You may also have an elevated risk of developing acute bronchitis if you currently have an acute illness or chronic condition, especially if it affects your immune system.

Other risk factors for acute bronchitis include:

  • Smoking. People who smoke cigarettes, cigars and/or pipe tobacco regularly have a higher risk of developing acute bronchitis.

  • Gastric reflux. People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or people who often get heartburn, may have a higher risk of developing bronchitis due to irritation to the throat.

Chronic bronchitis shares a few common risk factors with acute bronchitis, but also has several unique risk factors of its own. Risk factors for this form of bronchitis include:

  • Smoking. Smoking cigarettes, cigars and/or pipe tobacco is the largest risk factor for chronic bronchitis. As much as 75 percent of people with chronic bronchitis are either active or former smokers.

  • Age. Chronic bronchitis is more common in people over the age of 40 than in younger people.

  • Genetic conditions. Certain genetic conditions may increase your risk of developing chronic bronchitis. The genetic disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD or AATD) may increase your risk of chronic bronchitis.

  • Family history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with a family member who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who smoke have an elevated risk of developing chronic bronchitis.

  • Exposure to lung irritants. Long-term exposure to irritants such as dusts, chemical fumes, air pollution and secondhand smoke can contribute to a higher risk of chronic bronchitis.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis

The symptoms of bronchitis, particularly acute bronchitis, are often similar to those of the flu or a common cold. This can often make it difficult to tell bronchitis apart from common viral infections during the first few days of symptoms.

If you have some or all of the symptoms listed above and think that you have bronchitis, it’s best to contact a healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will listen to your lungs as you breathe using a stethoscope and try to detect any signs of bronchitis. 

Your healthcare provider may also recommend a sputum (mucus) test, pulmonary function test, chest X-ray,  or blood tests to identify if your symptoms are caused by bronchitis or another illness, such as pneumonia. 

For chronic bronchitis, your healthcare provider may also ask about your medical history and family history of genetic conditions or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Your healthcare provider may also ask about your smoking habits (if you smoke), workplace and other relevant factors.

Treatment 

The most effective way to treat bronchitis depends on the type of bronchitis you have — acute or chronic. 

Treatments for Acute Bronchitis

If you have acute bronchitis, your symptoms should go away on their own over time without any need for treatment. Most cases of acute bronchitis go away gradually over the course of several days or weeks.

Medications

If your healthcare provider believes that your bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection, they may prescribe an antibiotic.

Most treatment for acute bronchitis involves treating the condition’s symptoms. Your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan (Triaminic® Cold and Cough) or dextromethorphan and guaifenesin (Robitussin® DM).  

These medications don’t have any effect on the inflamed bronchi and won’t treat the underlying cause of your coughing. However, they may suppress your urge to cough, thin mucous secretions,  and make it easier to deal with the discomfort caused by acute bronchitis.

If you have any respiratory conditions, including asthma and/or COPD, it’s important to tell your healthcare provider before using any cough medications to treat the symptoms of bronchitis, as some drugs (including dextromethorphan) may increase your risk of certain side effects.

If you have acute bronchitis due to a cold or the flu, over-the-counter pain relief medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can help to deal with some symptoms caused by these illnesses, such as headache and fever.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle Changes

Although there’s no evidence that lifestyle changes or home remedies can get rid of bronchitis, making certain changes to your daily routine may help you to manage symptoms and recover from the virus or infection that caused bronchitis to develop. Try to:

  • Get plenty of rest. During the first few days of acute bronchitis, make sure that you get plenty of sleep. Avoid strenuous physical activity and take it easy to allow your immune system to help you recover.

  • Stay hydrated. Although there’s limited evidence that drinking more than normal can help to treat illnesses, it’s important to make sure that you get enough fluid for optimal health.

  • Use honey to relieve your cough. Drinking tea or warm water mixed with honey can help to soothe discomfort from a sore throat. Several studies have found that honey is an effective natural cough suppressant, particularly for children.

  • Avoid anything that could irritate your lungs. Irritants such as cigarette smoke and air pollution should be avoided while you’re sick. Likewise, chemicals such as cleaning solutions and paint may irritate your lungs and cause you to cough.

  • If possible, use a humidifier. If you have a humidifier at home, use it to keep your air supply warm and moist. Make sure to clean your air humidifier frequently to reduce the risk of fungi and bacteria growing inside.

  • Suck on cough lozenges to ease symptoms. Cough lozenges may help to limit pain from a sore throat and make the symptoms of bronchitis easier to deal with. Make sure not to give lozenges to children under four years of age.

  • Breathe in steam from hot water. If you have a severe, painful cough, try breathing in steam from your shower, bath or a hot bowl of water.

Treatments for Chronic Bronchitis

Although there’s no cure for chronic bronchitis, treatment options are available to help you deal with most of the disease’s symptoms, maintain an active lifestyle and manage the progression of chronic bronchitis over time.

Medications and Surgical Procedures

If you have chronic bronchitis, your healthcare provider may recommend one or several different medications to treat your symptoms and help you enjoy a normal lifestyle:

  • Bronchodilators. These medications help to make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in your lungs and airways. Your healthcare provider may suggest using an inhaler if your chronic bronchitis makes breathing difficult.

    Some inhalers contain bronchodilators and steroids to reduce the inflammation that may affect your bronchial tubes.

  • Antibiotics. If you develop an infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to make sure you recover effectively.

  • Vaccines. If you have chronic bronchitis, you have an elevated risk for illnesses such as pneumococcal pneumonia and influenza (flu). Your healthcare provider may recommend getting a flu and/or pneumococcal vaccine to reduce your risk of developing these illnesses.

If your chronic bronchitis is severe and prevents you from breathing effectively, your healthcare provider may recommend oxygen therapy. This is a treatment that provides your lungs with additional oxygen via a mask, nasal prongs or breathing tube.

Severe cases of chronic bronchitis that don’t appear to improve with medication and/or therapy may be treated through lung transplantation surgery. This is usually a last resort treatment that’s used only when other options haven’t been successful.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle Changes

Although chronic bronchitis can’t be cured, it can often be treated by making certain changes to your lifestyle. 

One common lifestyle-based form of treatment for chronic bronchitis is pulmonary rehabilitation (PR). Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you improve your breathing by making changes and improvements to your lifestyle, often in addition to the use of medication.

As part of pulmonary rehabilitation treatment, your healthcare providers may recommend that you:

  • Make changes to your diet. Pulmonary rehabilitation often involves changing your diet to ensure that you eat nutritious foods, as being above or below an optimal body weight can affect your breathing.

  • Exercise. Regular exercise can improve your cardiovascular health, muscular strength and breathing. As part of your treatment, you may need to exercise frequently using a treadmill, stationary bike or other equipment.

  • Adapt daily tasks to make breathing easier. Your healthcare providers may suggest changing the way you do certain things, such as common movements, to reduce your energy usage and make it easier to breathe.

  • Use breathing techniques. These techniques can help you to increase the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath, improve your general airway function and breathe at a slower pace.

  • Learn about your disease and how it can be managed. This may help you to avoid infections and complications associated with chronic bronchitis, use medication to help with your symptoms and avoid situations that could worsen your condition.

  • Take part in counseling and support. Your pulmonary rehabilitation treatment program may involve counseling and support to help you deal with anxiety, depression and other emotional problems that you may face.

In addition to pulmonary rehabilitation treatment, other changes to your habits and lifestyle can be helpful for managing the symptoms of chronic bronchitis and slowing down the progression of the disease:

  • Quitting smoking. If you smoke, quitting may make the symptoms of chronic bronchitis less severe. There are also several additional health benefits to quitting smoking, from improved heart health to a reduced risk of lung cancer and other diseases.

  • Avoid other sources of lung and airway irritation. This includes avoiding secondhand smoke, as well as air pollution, chemicals and fumes that could irritate your airways and make it more difficult to breathe.

If you have severe symptoms from chronic bronchitis, such as difficulty breathing or talking, you should contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Call 911 immediately if any of your symptoms feel life-threatening.

Prevention

There are several steps that you can take to prevent both acute and chronic bronchitis, ranging from vaccination to avoidance of unhealthy habits. To reduce your risk of bronchitis, try to:

  • Avoid smoking, or quit if you currently smoke. Smoking not only causes most cases of chronic bronchitis, but it can also increase your risk of developing acute bronchitis if you get sick due a cold or the flu.

  • Get a flu vaccine. Acute bronchitis is typically caused by a virus, such as the common cold or the flu. Getting the flu vaccine regularly can reduce your risk of catching the flu, making you less likely to develop bronchitis.

  • Wash your hands often. Washing your hands makes you less likely to develop viral or bacterial infections. We recommend following the CDC’s guidelines for handwashing to limit your exposure to pathogens and keep yourself healthy.

  • If you need to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth. Use the inside of your elbow or a tissue to cover your mouth when you need to cough or sneeze. This can lower your risk of spreading colds, the flu and other illnesses that can cause acute bronchitis.

Talk to a Healthcare Professional About Bronchitis

Worried you have bronchitis? If you’ve recently developed a cough alongside a cold or the flu, or you frequently get an uncontrollable, unpleasant cough that comes and goes, you could be affected by acute or chronic bronchitis. 

Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat bronchitis and a large range of other health conditions. 

If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to a healthcare provider’s office.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.