Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 

brand logo

Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(4):805-806

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tree. The bronchial (say: “brawn-kee-ull”) tree is made up of the tubes that carry air into your lungs. When these tubes get infected, they swell up, and mucus (thick fluid) forms. This makes it hard for you to breathe. You might cough up mucus, and you may wheeze (make a whistling sound when you breathe).

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is almost always caused by a virus that attacks the lining of the bronchial tree and causes infection. As your body fights back against the virus, more swelling occurs, and more mucus is made. It takes time for your body to kill the virus and heal the damage to your bronchial tubes.

In most cases, the same viruses that cause colds cause acute bronchitis. Bacterial infection is much less common in bronchitis than we used to think. Very rarely, an infection caused by a fungus can cause acute bronchitis.

How do people get acute bronchitis?

The viruses that cause acute bronchitis are sprayed into the air or onto people's hands when they cough. You can catch acute bronchitis if you breathe in these viruses. You can also get it if you touch someone's hand that has been coated with the viruses.

If you smoke or are around damaging fumes (such as those in certain kinds of factories), you are more likely to get acute bronchitis and to have it longer. This happens because your bronchial tree is already damaged.

How is acute bronchitis treated?

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own after a few days or a week. Because acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, antibiotics (medicines that kill bacteria) probably won't help you get better any faster.

If you smoke, you should cut down on the number of cigarettes you smoke or stop smoking altogether. This will help your bronchial tree heal faster.

For some people with acute bronchitis, doctors prescribe medicines that are usually used to treat asthma. These medicines can help open the bronchial tubes and clear out mucus. They are usually given with an inhaler, which sprays the medicine right into the bronchial tree. Your doctor will decide if this treatment is right for you.

How long will the cough from acute bronchitis last?

Sometimes the cough from acute bronchitis lasts for several weeks or months. Usually, this happens because the bronchial tree is taking a long time to heal. However, a cough that just doesn't go away may be the sign of another problem, like asthma or pneumonia.

You should call your doctor if:

  • You continue to wheeze and cough for more than one month, especially at night or when you are active.

  • You continue to cough for more than one month and sometimes have a bad tasting fluid come up into your mouth.

  • You have a cough, you feel sick and weak, and you have a high fever that doesn't go down.

  • You cough up blood.

  • You have trouble breathing when you lie down.

  • Your feet swell.

How can I keep from getting acute bronchitis again?

If you smoke, the best defense against acute bronchitis is to quit. Smoking damages your bronchial tree and makes it easier for viruses to cause infection. Smoking also slows down the healing, so it takes longer for you to get well. Another way to keep from getting acute bronchitis is to wash your hands often to get rid of any viruses.

Continue Reading

More in AFP

More in PubMed

Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.