Bronchitis: Causes, Symptoms & When to See Your Doctor

The inflammation of the bronchial tubes characterizes bronchitis, which carries air to and from the lungs. It can be chronic or acute. Around 10 million Americans suffer from a chronic form of the disease, and an additional 17 million have COPD. More than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with (acute) bronchitis annually, making it crucial to recognize the condition and know what to do next.

Bronchitis. Lungs and bronchial tubes. normal bronchial tube and a bronchial tube with bronchitis.

What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a respiratory condition in which the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs, become inflamed. This can lead to swelling of the airways and an accumulation of mucus, which can cause coughing. The immune system may respond to the irritation by triggering inflammation and mucus production in the airways, leading to persistent coughing until the inflammation and mucus are resolved. The acute type sometimes referred to as a “chest cold,” is a short-term illness that usually resolves within a week to 10 days. While the symptoms may disappear, the cough may persist for several weeks. If an individual experiences frequent episodes of acute bronchitis, they may be diagnosed with the chronic type. Which is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Causes of Bronchitis

Bronchitis is typically caused by a viral infection. However, other factors, such as irritants can also cause the condition. Infectious and noninfectious causes may include:

  • Viruses, like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and the coronavirus
  • Bacteria, like Bordetella pertussis
  • Air pollution and/or dust
  • Smoking cigarettes or cannabis
  • Toxic gases

It can affect anyone, but certain individuals may be at higher risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Smokers and individuals exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Individuals with asthma, COPD, or other respiratory conditions
  • Those with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Individuals with autoimmune disorders or other conditions that cause inflammation
  • Those exposed to air pollutants such as smoke or chemicals

Now we know what Bronchitis is and how it’s caused, the big question is: How do you get this virus or bacteria and is it contagious? Well, you can get it through close contacts, such as shaking hands or touching the same surfaces, with an infected individual. Bronchitis itself isn’t contagious, but the virus or bacteria that causes it is. For example, if you have the flu and develop bronchitis as a result, you may be able to transmit the virus to someone else who may not develop the condition, but he or she does get the flu. It is also possible to transmit the virus to someone else even if you do not have bronchitis yourself.


Symptoms of Bronchitis

It can be difficult to distinguish bronchitis from other respiratory conditions that affect the lungs and breathing. The symptoms often resemble those of a cold, including a runny nose, sore throat, and general fatigue. However, a persistent cough lasting for five days or more is often a sign of bronchitis. When symptoms persist for more than 3 months, we speak of chronic bronchitis (or COPD). Other symptoms may include:

  • Mucus in various colors such as clear, yellow, white, or green
  • Low-grade to no fever
  • Chest discomfort or soreness when coughing
  • Chronic tiredness
  • Whistling or wheezing during breathing
  • Chest rattling sensation
  • Chills

Treatment Options

A healthcare provider can diagnose bronchitis based on an individual’s medical history and symptoms. They will listen to the lungs for signs of congestion and assess breathing. They may also test for viral infections such as the flu or COVID-19. Other diagnostic tests that may be conducted include nasal swabbing, chest x-ray, blood tests, and pulmonary function tests.

Acute bronchitis is typically not treated with medications. If an individual has the flu and the symptoms appear within the past two days, an antiviral medication may be prescribed to help speed up recovery. Antibiotics are not typically helpful in the treatment of bronchitis as it is usually caused by a virus and not bacteria. Antibiotics may even cause additional discomfort. In case your professional healthcare provider does want to treat it, options include:

  • Antiviral medication
  • Bronchodilators
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Cough suppressants
  • Antibiotics
  • COPD/asthma treatment

For more information about bronchitis, other respiratory conditions, and treatment options, continue your online search here:

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