Acute Bronchitis


Acute bronchitis is one of the top 10 medical conditions for which patients seek medical care. Its characteristic productive cough, shortness of breath, and chest tightness can be uncomfortable, but acute bronchitis, caused by the virus that also causes the common cold and the flu or by other lung irritants, lasts only a few days.

Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the passageways through which air travels to the lungs, and is one of two types of bronchitis—this type usually improves within several days or two weeks. Acute bronchitis is generally brought on by the same viruses that cause the common cold and the flu, which are spread through the air by coughing or through physical contact, or other lung irritants like smoke or air pollution. Bacteria can also cause bronchitis, but much less frequently.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • Cough, which often produces green or yellow mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Low-grade fever (less than 102°F)
  • Mild headaches or body aches1

Although acute bronchitis and its symptoms may clear up in a relatively short amount of time, the cough can persist for up to eight weeks.

This infection is one of the top 10 medical conditions for which patients seek care; in 1998, approximately 2.5 million visits to U.S. physicians pertained to acute bronchitis. However, as it is most often caused by a virus or by other lung irritants, it will generally get better on its own. People suffering from a bout of acute bronchitis will generally miss two to three days of work, making this a somewhat expensive infection.2

Antibiotics are unnecessary for acute bronchitis, unless it is determined to be caused by bacteria or the condition is another respiratory infection. Treatment of acute bronchitis is typically symptomatic; sufferers can take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve any pain. Patients can also use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer, or even breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or a shower, to help ease the characteristic cough.

One of the best ways to prevent a case of acute bronchitis is to avoid smoking or second-hand smoke. Smoking irritates the bronchial tubes, and is a major cause of acute—and chronic—bronchitis.  Dust, fumes, vapors, and other types of air pollution also irritate the lungs and can heavily contribute to the development of acute bronchitis. In addition, washing your hands frequently can help minimize the risk of contamination by contact.3

As a respiratory infection, acute bronchitis is generally mild. However, if symptoms of bronchitis last longer than several weeks, it may be chronic bronchitis—a respiratory condition that should be evaluated by a doctor.

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alveolus air sac where gas exchange takes place.
angina chest pain.
aorta blood vessel that delivers oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle to the body; it is the largest blood vessel in the body.
apex top portion of the upper lobes of the lungs.
atrium one of the two receiving chambers of the heart.
base bottom portion of lower lobes, located just above the diaphragm.
blood pressure pressure of blood against the walls of a blood vessel or heart chamber.
bronchiolitis inflammation that involves the bronchioles (small airways).
bronchoscopy the examination of the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs) using a flexible tube (bronchoscope). Bronchoscopy helps to evaluate and diagnose lung problems, assess blockages, obtain samples of tissue and/or fluid, and/or to help remove a foreign body.
bronchus large airways; lung divides into right and left bronchi.
cardiac output total amount of blood being pumped by the heart over a particular period of time.
catheter thin, flexible medical tube; one use is to insert it into a blood vessel to measure blood pressure.
constrict tighten; narrow.
cyanosis bluish color in the skin because of insufficient oxygen.
diaphragm primary muscle used for respiration, located just below the lung bases.
diastolic pressure lowest pressure to which blood pressure falls between contractions of the ventricles.
dilate relax; expand.
dyspnea sensation of difficulty in breathing.
edema swelling due to the buildup of fluid.
endothelial cells the delicate lining, only one cell thick, of the organs of circulation.
expiration exhaling; giving off carbon dioxide.
heartbeat one complete contraction of the heart.
hyperactive describes a situation in which a body tissue is especially likely to have an exaggerated reaction to a particular situation.
hypertension abnormally high blood pressure.
hypotension abnormally low blood pressure.
inspiration inhaling; taking in oxygen.
lobectomy removal of an entire lobe of the lung.
lung volume the amount of air the lungs hold.
mean blood pressure average blood pressure, taking account of the rise and fall that occurs with each heartbeat. It is often estimated by multiplying the diastolic pressure by two, adding the systolic pressure, and then dividing this sum by three.
palpitation sensation of rapid heartbeats.
perfusion flow.
pleura membrane that covers the outside of the lung.
pneumonectomy removal of an entire lung.
pulmonary artery blood vessel delivering oxygen-poor blood from the right ventricle to the lungs.
pulmonary hypertension abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
smooth muscle muscle that performs automatic tasks, such as constricting blood vessels.
spirogram record of the amounts of air being moved in and out of the lungs.
syncope fainting; temporary loss of consciousness.
systemic relating to a process that affects the body generally; in this instance, the way in which blood is supplied through the aorta to all body organs except the lungs.
systolic pressure the highest pressure to which blood pressure rises with the contraction of the ventricles.
vasodilator agent that widens blood vessels.
ventilation movement of air (gases) in and out of the lungs.
ventricle one of the two pumping chambers of the heart; right ventricle receives oxygen-poor blood from the right atrium and pumps it to the lungs through the pulmonary artery; left ventricle receives oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium and pumps it to the body through the aorta.