Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(10):2046

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the large tubes that carry air into your lungs. The tubes are called “the bronchial tree.”

The inflammation causes swelling in the tubes and makes a thick fluid called mucus. Acute bronchitis can also give you a fever, troubled breathing, chest pain, or wheezing. (Wheezing is a whistling noise when you breathe.)

How do people get acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis has many causes, including infections, smoking, and air pollution. A virus is the most common cause. Bacteria are much less common.

The viruses that cause acute bronchitis are the same ones that often cause colds. Viruses are spread into the air when sick people cough or sneeze. You can catch the infection by breathing in a virus or by touching a hand that has virus on it.

If you smoke, or if you have asthma or allergies, you are more likely to get very sick if you get acute bronchitis.

How is acute bronchitis treated?

Most often, your body can fight off a viral infection on its own. Usually, you will not need an antibiotic. Your doctor might want you to take medicine for cough, breathing problems, or wheezing. Your doctor might also want you to take a medicine to help your body make less mucus.

You will probably have a cough for at least 2 weeks. Some people with acute bronchitis cough for months.

When should I see my doctor again?

You should go back to your doctor if:

  • You keep coughing or wheezing for more than 1 month.

  • You have chest pain and feel very short of breath.

  • You continue to feel sick and weak.

  • You have a fever (a temperature higher than 100.4°F) that does not go down within 1 week.

  • You cough up blood.

Your doctor might want you to have tests to make sure that you do not have asthma, pneumonia, or another illness.

How can I keep from getting sick again?

Washing your hands often during the day can help keep you from getting an infection. If you smoke, you should stop. If you have asthma or allergies, work with your doctor to keep them under control.

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