Acute bronchitis refers to inflammation of the bronchi. When infected, these airways become inflamed and plugged with mucus.

Causes of Bronchitis

Usually bronchitis is caused by a viral infection, typically a cold virus. It can also be triggered by exposure to chemical fumes, dust, smoke, or other air pollutants. Cigarette smokers and those with heart failure or obstructive lung disease (such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]) are at increased risk for acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis Symptoms

The predominant symptom of acute bronchitis is a persistent cough that may produce gray, green, or yellowish phlegm. The cough may be preceded by a headache, fever, sore throat, or other symptoms typical of the common cold. Severe coughing bouts may produce chest pain.

Additional symptoms of acute bronchitis include wheezing and breathing difficulties. In healthy adults, the symptoms of bronchitis generally disappear on their own within a few days to a week.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis

A diagnosis is based on the symptoms. A chest x-ray may be needed to rule out other lung disorders, but acute bronchitis itself does not produce any abnormalities that can be seen on an x-ray.

Bronchitis Prevention

The most important thing you can do to prevent acute bronchitis is to not smoke. In addition, you can reduce your chances of picking up a cold virus by washing your hands frequently after contact with people who may be infected, minimizing how much you touch your eyes and nose, and avoiding exposure to people with respiratory infections.

Bronchitis Treatment

Usually no treatment other than smoking cessation is necessary for acute bronchitis. A recent study found little difference in symptom relief between people who took antibiotics for bronchitis or other uncomplicated respiratory tract infections and those who did not take them.

Doctors may prescribe the cough syrup dextromethorphan and an albuterol inhaler, which relaxes the bronchi and counters allergic reactions, but neither antibiotics nor antihistamines appear to have any effect when an acute episode is due to a viral infection.

In people with chronic pulmonary disease, such as asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, or interstitial lung disease, a viral infection that destroys the protective layer of cells lining the trachea and bronchi may lead to a bacterial infection, which can worsen the underlying lung disease or lead to pneumonia. In these individuals, an attack of acute bronchitis is treated with antibiotics.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 19 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 24 Oct 2014