Acute Bronchitis

What is acute bronchitis?

Bronchitis is inflammation of the breathing tubes. These airways are called bronchi. This inflammation causes increased mucus production and other changes. There are several different types of bronchitis. But the most common are acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis may also be called a chest cold.

Most symptoms of acute bronchitis last for up to 2 weeks. The cough can last for up to 8 weeks in some people. Chronic bronchitis lasts a long time. It is more common among smokers.

Front view of woman showing respiratory system. Insets show normal airway and airway with bronchitis.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is often caused by a viral infection. This is most often the same viruses that cause colds and the flu. It may also be caused by a bacterial infection. Or by physical or chemical agents that are breathed in. These may include dusts, allergens, and strong fumes, including those from chemical cleaning compounds or tobacco smoke.

Acute bronchitis may come after a common cold or other viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. It may also occur in people with chronic sinusitis, allergies, or those with enlarged tonsils and adenoids. It can be serious in people with lung or heart diseases. Pneumonia is a complication that can follow bronchitis.

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis?

The following are the most common symptoms of acute bronchitis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Back and muscle pain
  • Cough, first dry (nonproductive), but later with a lot of mucus
  • Chest soreness
  • Chills
  • Feeling tired and achy
  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Slight fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Wheezing

The symptoms of acute bronchitis may look like other conditions or health problems. Talk with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Healthcare providers can often diagnose acute bronchitis by taking a health history and doing a physical exam. Tests may be done to rule out other diseases such as pneumonia or asthma. Any of these tests may be used to help confirm a diagnosis:

  • Chest X-rays. This test uses invisible radiation beams to make images of internal tissues, bones, and organs, including the lungs.
  • Arterial blood gas. This blood test is used to analyze the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
  • Pulse oximetry. An oximeter is a small machine that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. To get this measurement, a small sensor is taped or clipped on a finger or toe. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot.
  • Cultures of nasal discharge and sputum. Tests may be done on the sputum you cough up or on nasal discharge swabbed from your nose. This testing helps find and identify the microorganism causing the infection.
  • Pulmonary function tests. These are tests that help to measure how well the lungs move air in and out. The tests are often done with special machines that you breathe into.

How is acute bronchitis treated?

Acute bronchitis is often mild and does not cause complications. The symptoms often resolve on their own and lung function goes back to normal.

In most cases, antibiotics are not needed to treat acute bronchitis. That’s because most of the infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. If it has progressed to pneumonia, then antibiotics may be needed.

Treatment is aimed at treating the symptoms and may include:

  • Staying away from secondhand smoke
  • Taking cough medicine
  • Humidifying the air
  • Drinking more fluids
  • Taking pain relievers and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen
  • Quitting smoking

Don't use antihistamines. They dry up the secretions and can make the cough worse.

What are possible complications of acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis can worsen and progress to chronic bronchitis or pneumonia. If this happens, a different treatment may be needed.

Can acute bronchitis be prevented?

Acute bronchitis can’t always be prevented. But there are shots you can get to prevent its complications, such as pneumonia.

Check with your healthcare provider about getting the flu and pneumococcal shots. Getting a flu shot every year can help prevent both the flu and pneumonia. The pneumococcal shot can protect you from a common form of bacterial pneumonia. There are now 2 different pneumococcal vaccines available. You may need to get both if you are age 65 or older. Talk with your healthcare provider.

Anyone can get pneumococcal disease. But those at the highest risk are children younger than age 2, adults ages 65 and older, people with certain health conditions, and smokers.

Talk with your healthcare provider and your child’s provider about the pneumococcal vaccine. The CDC recommends the vaccine for all children younger than 2 years old and all adults age 65 or older.

Online Medical Reviewer: Allen J Blaivas DO

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN

Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2021

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