Understanding Acute Bronchitis - Symptoms and Treatment

Acute bronchitis is an infection that leads to inflammation and increased mucus production in the lungs. The symptoms may be similar to other respiratory illness—coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness or pain are all common symptoms of acute bronchitis. [1]

A persistent cough is the most common symptom that indicates bronchitis—the cough may or may not be productive, and if it is, the sputum (mucus or phlegm) expelled may be yellow or greenish or clear. [1] Other non-respiratory symptoms include fatigue or tiredness, and slight fever or chills. [1] It is common for acute bronchitis to onset alongside or just after having a cold, flu or other respiratory virus or infection. [2] Nasal congestion or sinusitis may also accompany or lead to developing acute bronchitis. [3] [4]

How Acute Bronchitis is Diagnosed

Most often, a physical exam will help a doctor diagnose bronchitis, usually listening to breath sounds with a stethoscope and discussing symptoms with the patient. In some cases, a chest x-ray will be taken to check for pneumonia or fluid in the lungs. [1.2] A sputum sample may be taken to determine if the infection is bacterial or viral [1.2] —bacterial bronchitis can be treated effectively with antibiotics, where viral bronchitis cannot.

If a person has acute bronchitis, especially if they also have asthma or COPD, they may also have pulmonary function tests done to check how well their lungs are functioning, and if they need additional treatment. [1.2] In some cases with infections like acute bronchitis, oxygen therapy may help, most often in those who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. [5]

Treating Acute Bronchitis

Most often, acute bronchitis gets better without treatment within a few weeks. [1.2]
Doctors may recommend using over-the-counter pain, and fever relievers called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to help with pain and fever caused by acute bronchitis. [2] Creating a more humid environment may help ease the congestion associated with bronchitis—some people find it helpful to use a humidifier or sit in a steamy room, such as when taking a bath or running the shower while remaining in the bathroom with the door closed. [1.2]

It is not clear whether or not it is helpful to take cough medicines for acute bronchitis. Especially if you have asthma or COPD, use these only on recommendation by a doctor, and ask about what types are safe for you to take. Cough suppressants called antitussives may prolong bronchitis, making it more difficult for mucus to be coughed up, keeping it trapped in the lungs. [6] In some cases, expectorant cough syrup makes it easier to cough up mucus, but the research is not clear if this is helpful. [6]

Antibiotics are commonly prescribed for bronchitis, but they should only be used if it is likely the infection is bacterial—this most often occurs in young children [3], or those with other lung diseases like COPD or cystic fibrosis. [6] [7] A sputum sample can determine the presence of bacterial bronchitis and determine if antibiotics are truly necessary. In some cases for people with chronic lung disease, adding or increasing inhaled medicine, including bronchodilators and inhaled or oral corticosteroids may help to ease symptoms and relieve severe lung inflammation caused by bronchitis. [8]

Acute bronchitis is usually easily diagnosed and treated and should resolve completely within a few weeks, with proper treatment including fluids and adequate rest.

Page last updated: October 12, 2018

[1] Mayo Clinic. Bronchitis. Published: April 11, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355566
[1.2] Mayo Clinic. Bronchitis - Diagnosis and treatment. Last updated: April 11, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355572
[2] National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Bronchitis. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/bronchitis
[3] MedicineNet. Bronchitis (acute) symptoms, causes, treatment, remedies, and cures. Last reviewed: February 7, 2018. https://www.medicinenet.com/bronchitis_acute/article.htm
[4] Mayo Clinic. (2005, November 3). Sinusitis Is Common Yet Often Overlooked Cause Of Chronic Cough. ScienceDaily. Published: November 3, 2005. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/11/051103082337.htm
[5] Health.com. What is bronchitis? Published: May 2, 2018. https://www.health.com/bronchitis
[6] Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chronic bronchitis, acute exacerbations. Last updated: June 3, 2017. https://www.hopkinsguides.com/hopkins/view/Johns_Hopkins_ABX_Guide/540124/all/Chronic_Bronchitis__Acute_Exacerbations
[7] Mayo Clinic. Cystic fibrosis Published: October 13, 2016. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cystic-fibrosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20353700
[8] Vann, M. R. (2018, February 5). Is it asthma, bronchitis, or both? Everyday health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/asthma/bronchitis-or-asthma.aspx#asthmaandacutebronchitis

About Kerri M: Kerri is a blogger, coach, quantified self-er, and ePatient. A former gym class hater, she now holds a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education. Diagnosed with asthma in 2008 when she was 16, Kerri believes she is not defined by her diagnoses, but rather that they help explain her. Kerri writes for work and fun (often simultaneously!) on topics including asthma, ADHD, learning issues, patient engagement, and technology. Airplanes, t-shirts and cupcakes are among her favorite things.

Leave a Comment