Acute Bronchitis

(Bronchitis, Acute; Lower Respiratory Tract Infection, Chest Cold)
  • Definition

    Acute bronchitis is a short-term respiratory infection that may be referred to as a chest cold. The bronchi branch off the trachea, taking air from the outside into the lungs. In bronchitis, the bronchi become inflamed and produce more mucus.
    Bronchi of Lungs
    lungs and bronchioles
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
  • Causes

    In most cases, acute bronchitis is caused by a viral infection. There are times when it may be caused by a bacterial infection.
  • Risk Factors

    Factors that may increase your risk of getting acute bronchitis include:
    • Having a cold or flu
    • Contact with a person with a respiratory viral or bacterial infection
    • Smoking
    • Exposure to second-hand smoke
    • Asthma
    • Exposures to respiratory inhalants at work, such as:
      • Ammonia
      • Chlorine
      • Minerals
      • Vegetable dusts
    • Poorly functioning immune system
  • Symptoms

    Acute bronchitis may cause:
    • Cough, with or without sputum
    • Increased sputum production
    • Trouble breathing
    • Wheezing
    You may also have other cold or flu symptoms such as slight fever, sore throat, and nasal congestion.
  • Diagnosis

    Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
    Tests are rarely needed. The following may be recommended if the bronchitis is severe or the diagnosis is not clear:
    • Blood test
    • Chest x-rays—to look for other conditions such as pneumonia
    • Sputum cultures to check for the presence of bacteria are rarely helpful
  • Treatment

    Acute bronchitis can be treated with rest and medications. It can take up to a month for the cough to go away.
    Your doctor may recommend:
    • Over-the-counter medications to relieve discomfort and reduce fever
      • Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
    • Inhalers—to improve symptoms in adults with a history of asthma
    • Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day to help make your cough more productive
    Antibiotics are not used for treatment because acute bronchitis is usually the result of a viral infection.
    Cough suppressants are not generally recommended. Coughing is important to help you clear extra mucus from your lungs.
    Avoid using cough suppressant medication. Coughing is necessary to clear mucus from your lungs. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that cough supressants not be used in children less than 2 years old. The FDA also supports not using them in children less than 4 years old.
  • Prevention

    To help reduce your chance of getting acute bronchitis:
    • Use proper handwashing hygiene, especially if you are in contact with someone who is sick
    • Avoid contact with people who have respiratory viral or bacterial infections.
    • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can successfully quit. Smoke weakens the lungs' resistance to infection and increases recovery time.

    American Academy of Family Physicians

    American Lung Association


    The Canadian Lung Association

    The College of Family Physicians of Canada


    Acute bronchitis. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: Updated September 2013. Accessed February 14, 2014.

    Acute bronchitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated December 21, 2013. Accessed February 14, 2014.

    Acute bronchitis (chest cold). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated September 13, 2013. Accessed February 14, 2014.

    Smith S, Fahey T, et al. Antibiotics for acute bronchitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;CD000245.

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