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Bronchitis - acute

Definition

Acute bronchitis is swelling and inflammation in the main passages that carry air to the lungs. The swelling narrows the airways, which makes it harder to breathe. Another symptom of bronchitis is a cough. Acute means the symptoms have been present only for a short time.

Causes

When acute bronchitis occurs, it almost always comes after having a cold or flu-like illness. The bronchitis infection is caused by a virus. At first, it affects your nose, sinuses, and throat. Then it spreads to the airways that lead to your lungs.

Sometimes, bacteria also infect your airways. This is called a secondary infection.

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition. To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, you must have a cough with mucus on most days for at least 3 months.

Symptoms

Some symptoms of acute bronchitis are:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Cough that produces mucus -- the mucus may be clear or yellow-green
  • Fatigue
  • Fever -- usually low-grade
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with activity
  • Wheezing, in people with asthma

Even after acute bronchitis has cleared, you may have a dry, nagging cough that lasts for 1 to 4 weeks.

Sometimes it can be hard to know you have pneumonia or bronchitis. If you have pneumonia, you are more likely to have a high fever and chills, feel sicker, or be more short of breath.

 

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will listen to the breathing sounds in your lungs with a stethoscope. Your breathing may sound abnormal or rough.

Tests may include:

  • Chest x-ray, if your health care provider suspects pneumonia
  • Pulse oximetry, a painless test that helps determine the amount of oxygen in your blood by using a device placed on the end of your finger

Treatment

Most people DO NOT need antibiotics for acute bronchitis. The infection will almost always go away on its own within 1 week. Doing these things may help you feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If you have asthma or another chronic lung condition, use your inhaler.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brands) if you have a fever. Do not give aspirin to children.
  • Use a humidifier or steam in the bathroom.

Certain medicines that you can buy without a prescription can help break up or loosen mucus. Look for the word "guaifenesin" on the label. Ask the pharmacist if you need help finding it.

If your symptoms do not improve or if you are wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways.

If your doctor thinks you also have bacteria in your airways, he or she may prescribe antibiotics. This medicine will only get rid of bacteria, not viruses. A bacterial infection is more common if you also have a chronic lung disease like COPD.

Sometimes, bacteria may infect the airways along with the virus. If your doctor thinks this has happened, you may be prescribed antibiotics. Sometimes, corticosteroid medicine is also needed to reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Other tips include:

  • Do not smoke.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution.
  • Wash your hands (and your children's hands) often to avoid spreading viruses and other germs.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Except for the cough, symptoms usually go away in 7 to 10 days if you do not have a lung disorder.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your doctor if you:

  • Have a cough on most days, or have a cough that keeps returning
  • Are coughing up blood
  • Have a high fever or shaking chills
  • Have a low-grade fever for 3 or more days
  • Have thick, yellow-green mucus, especially if it has a bad smell
  • Feel short of breath or have chest pain
  • Have a chronic illness, like heart or lung disease

References

Davids S, Schapira RM. Respiratory diseases, acute bronchitis. In: Bope ET, Kellerman RD, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2014. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:section 6.

Ferri FF. Acute bronchitis. In: Ferri FF, ed. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2013. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2012:section 1.


Review Date: 4/26/2014
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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