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What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are the airways that carry air to and from the lungs. This inflammation can lead to swelling and increased production of mucus, causing narrowing of the airways and making it harder to breathe. It can be classified into two main types:

  • Acute bronchitis is a short-term condition usually caused by viral infections, such as the flu or common cold. Acute bronchitis often follows an upper respiratory tract infection and can last for a few weeks.

  • Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition characterized by a persistent cough with mucus that lasts for at least three months in two consecutive years. Chronic bronchitis is often associated with long-term exposure to irritants, most commonly cigarette smoke.


What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

Bronchitis symptoms typically include persistent coughing, which may produce mucus or phlegm. Other common symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Fatigue

  • Sore throat

  • Body aches

  • Nasal congestion

  • Low-grade fever


What causes bronchitis?

  • Viral infections: The most common cause of acute bronchitis is viral infections, such as the flu or common cold.

  • Bacterial infections: Bacteria, like Mycoplasma pneumoniae, can lead to bronchitis, especially in cases that don't improve with usual treatments.

  • Smoking: Cigarette smoke and other irritants can damage the airways and increase the risk of chronic bronchitis.

  • Environmental factors: Exposure to pollutants, dust, fumes, or chemicals in the air can irritate the bronchial tubes.

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus can sometimes reach the throat and airways, causing bronchitis symptoms.

  • Allergies: Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, or certain foods can trigger inflammation in the airways.

  • Weak immune system: A weakened immune system due to other illnesses can make you more susceptible to bronchitis.

  • Genetics: Some people might have a genetic predisposition that makes them more prone to developing bronchitis.


What are the differences between acute and chronic bronchitis?

Acute and chronic bronchitis are two distinct forms of respiratory conditions:

  • Acute bronchitis:

    • Duration: Acute bronchitis is a short-term condition, typically lasting a few weeks.

    • Cause: It is often caused by viral infections, such as the flu or common cold viruses.

    • Symptoms: Common symptoms include a persistent cough with mucus, chest discomfort, fatigue, and sometimes low-grade fever.

    • Treatment: Acute bronchitis usually resolves on its own with rest, hydration, and symptomatic relief. Antibiotics are not usually recommended unless there's a bacterial infection present.

  • Chronic bronchitis:

    • Duration: Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition, with symptoms persisting for at least three months in two consecutive years.

    • Cause: It is commonly associated with smoking or long-term exposure to irritants like air pollution, dust, or chemicals.

    • Symptoms: Besides persistent cough and mucus production, chronic bronchitis may involve more severe symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, frequent respiratory infections, and worsening fatigue.

    • Treatment: Managing chronic bronchitis involves quitting smoking (if applicable), avoiding irritants, and medical treatment to alleviate symptoms and prevent complications.


In summary, acute bronchitis is a temporary condition often caused by infections, while chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation of the airways primarily caused by irritants. Both conditions involve cough and mucus production, but chronic bronchitis is characterized by persistent and recurring symptoms over an extended period.

How do you treat bronchitis?

Treatment for bronchitis depends on whether it's acute or chronic and the underlying cause. Here are general approaches for both types:

  • Acute bronchitis:

    • Rest and hydration: Get plenty of rest and drink fluids to help your body recover.

    • Over-the-counter medications: Pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help manage discomfort and fever. Cough suppressants and expectorants can also provide relief.

    • Humidifier: Using a humidifier or taking steamy showers can soothe your airways and loosen mucus.

    • Avoid irritants: Stay away from smoke, fumes, and other irritants that can worsen symptoms.

    • Antibiotics: If a bacterial infection is confirmed, antibiotics may be prescribed. However, they're not effective against viral infections.

  • Chronic bronchitis:

    • Lifestyle changes: Quit smoking if you're a smoker, as this is crucial for managing chronic bronchitis. Avoid exposure to irritants.

    • Bronchodilators: These inhalers relax the muscles around the airways, making breathing easier.

    • Corticosteroids: Inhaled or oral steroids can reduce inflammation in the airways.

    • Pulmonary rehabilitation: This program includes exercise, breathing techniques, and education to improve lung function and quality of life.

    • Oxygen therapy: If blood oxygen levels are low, supplemental oxygen may be prescribed.

    • Vaccinations: Getting vaccinated against flu and pneumonia can prevent infections that can worsen bronchitis symptoms.


Always consult a Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group primary care provider for proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

How can you prevent bronchitis?

  • Avoid smoking: If you smoke, quitting is the single most effective way to prevent bronchitis and other respiratory issues.

  • Limit exposure to irritants: Minimize exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, dust, and chemical fumes.

  • Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands frequently to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that can cause bronchitis.

  • Stay healthy: Maintain a strong immune system through a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and managing stress.

  • Get vaccinated: Annual flu shots and recommended pneumonia vaccines can protect you from infections that may lead to bronchitis.

  • Avoid crowds during cold and flu season: Viral infections often trigger bronchitis. During peak cold and flu season, avoid large gatherings and practice good hygiene.

  • Use a mask in polluted areas: If you're in an area with high air pollution, wearing a mask can help reduce exposure to irritants.

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water helps keep your airways moist and can help prevent infections.

  • Practice respiratory hygiene: Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and dispose of tissues properly.

  • Manage chronic conditions: If you have conditions like asthma or allergies, managing them effectively can help prevent bronchitis.


What are complications of bronchitis?

Complications of bronchitis can arise, particularly if the condition is not managed properly. Some potential complications include:

  • Pneumonia: Bronchitis can make the lungs more susceptible to bacterial infections, leading to pneumonia. This can result in more severe respiratory symptoms and may require additional treatment.

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Long-term inflammation of the airways can contribute to the development or worsening of COPD, a group of progressive lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): In severe cases, bronchitis can cause ARDS, a life-threatening condition characterized by rapid onset of severe breathing difficulty due to lung inflammation.

  • Exacerbation of existing conditions: Bronchitis can worsen pre-existing conditions such as asthma or COPD, leading to increased symptoms and reduced lung function.

  • Secondary infections: Weakened respiratory defenses due to bronchitis can make individuals more susceptible to secondary infections, like sinusitis or ear infections.

  • Respiratory failure: In very severe cases, especially in individuals with compromised lung function, bronchitis can contribute to respiratory failure, where the lungs are unable to provide adequate oxygen to the body.

  • Hospitalization: Severe cases of bronchitis or complications may require hospitalization for specialized treatment and monitoring.


It's important to seek care from a Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group primary care provider if bronchitis symptoms are severe, persistent, or worsening. Proper management and timely medical care can help prevent or minimize the risk of these complications.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Bronchitis itself is not usually contagious, especially in cases of chronic bronchitis that are not caused by infections. However, acute bronchitis, which is often triggered by viral or bacterial infections, can be contagious.

  • Viral infections: If acute bronchitis is caused by a viral infection, such as the flu virus or common cold viruses, it can be contagious. The contagious period is typically during the initial stages of the illness when the person is actively experiencing symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

  • Bacterial infections: Acute bronchitis caused by bacterial infections, such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, can also be contagious, especially during the period when symptoms are present.


The contagious period for acute bronchitis caused by infections is generally considered to be during the first several days to a week when symptoms are most pronounced. As symptoms improve and the person starts to recover, the contagiousness decreases.

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