What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the lining of airways. There are commonly two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Chronic bronchitis is discussed under chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This report will mainly discuss acute bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis is a type of chest infection. It is a common condition that affects the lungs and occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed. Acute bronchitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria and other particles, such as air pollution, smoke or chemicals that are breathed in and irritate the lining of the airways. These factors lead to inflammation in the lungs, which causes the airways to narrow and can result in coughing and mucus production.

Many cases of acute bronchitis will get better on their own. Over-the-counter medications, such as cough syrups, may help relieve some of the symptoms. Getting a yearly flu vaccination and avoiding smoke and other lung irritants may help reduce the risk of developing acute bronchitis.

Signs and symptoms

The main symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • Coughing;
  • Mucus production, and;
  • Wheezy or crackly breathing;

Some people with acute bronchitis may also experience:

  • A fever;
  • Muscle aches and pains;
  • A sore throat, and;
  • A blocked or runny nose.

Adult coughing.

Coughing is one of the main symptoms of acute bronchitis.


Acute bronchitis often develops after having a cold or the flu. It is most commonly caused by a virus, such as the influenza virus, but can also be caused by bacteria and other particles, such as air pollution or chemicals that are breathed in and irritate the lining of the airways. These factors cause the lining of the large airways, called bronchi, to become inflamed and swell up. They also cause the airways to produce more mucus than usual, which your body tries to get rid of by coughing.

Some of the infections that cause acute bronchitis can be contagious, which means that they can be easily passed on to another person. Acute bronchitis can be spread by breathing in the droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough.

Bronchitis causes production of mucus in the airways.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop acute bronchitis, but there are certain factors that can increase your risk of developing the condition. You are at increased risk if you:

  • Are elderly;
  • Smoke, or;
  • Have a weak immune system.

Methods for diagnosis

To work out if you have acute bronchitis, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and perform a physical examination. This may include listening to your chest with a stethoscope to hear your breathing. They may also take a sample of mucus or a swab from your throat and send it off to a laboratory for testing, in order to work out the cause of the infection. The doctor may also do some breathing tests to assess for underlying asthma or narrowing of your airways.

Some cases of acute bronchitis can develop into pneumonia. If your symptoms get worse, you may be asked to have a chest X-ray to make sure you have not developed pneumonia.

Types of treatment

Many cases of acute bronchitis will clear up on their own. However, there are some things you can do at home and some medications you can take that may help relieve the symptoms.

Self care

Some of the simple things you can do to help relieve your symptoms include:

  • Getting plenty of rest;
  • Avoiding cigarette smoke, and;
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.


Some over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, may help to relieve some of the symptoms of acute bronchitis. Decongestants may also help to relieve a blocked nose. Cough suppressants should be avoided if possible, and care should be taken if they have codeine in them.

If you have severe bronchitis caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or doxycycline, to help clear the infection. Antibiotics will not help clear up bronchitis if it is caused by a virus.

Potential complications

Sometimes acute bronchitis can develop into pneumonia. This occurs as a result of fluid and mucus accumulating in the air sacs of the lung. Pneumonia can be very serious, as it can reduce the amount of oxygen your body gets.

In people who are prone to asthma, bronchitis can be complicated by development of an asthma attack. This will require treatment in its own right. People with a tendency for asthma should seek early intervention for their bronchitis.


Most cases of acute bronchitis last from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on how severe it is. Elderly people and those with a weak immune system or other chronic illness may develop more severe symptoms and take longer to recover. Developing repeated cases of acute bronchitis for many weeks at a time may indicate you are developing a chronic lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchiectasis.


Many cases of acute bronchitis are caused by the flu, which is caused by the influenza virus. Getting a yearly flu vaccination can help to reduce your risk of developing acute bronchitis. If you have a history of lung problems then immunisation against pneumococcal pneumonia may also be helpful. Other things you can do to reduce your chances of getting acute bronchitis include:

  • Washing your hands often;
  • Avoiding and quitting smoking, and;
  • Avoiding inhaling substances that irritate the lungs, such as dust, fumes and air pollution.

Last Reviewed: 03/10/2018

Your Doctor. Dr Michael Jones, Medical Editor.

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