Five Frequently Asked Questions About Acute Bronchitis: “What’s Important to Know”

Joseph R. Anticaglia MD
Medical Advisory Board

Acute bronchitis is a temporary inflammation of the bronchial tubes — the vital airways that bring inhaled air into your lungs. The major symptom is coughing that often brings up phlegm from the respiratory tract. It is a common disease caused by viral infections in more than 90% of the cases. Much less frequently it is caused by bacteria.

Bronchitis occurs most often as a complication of the common cold or influenza. The infection causes the bronchial tubes of the lungs to swell, which leads to coughing, the production of phlegm (mucus) and other symptoms. The cough may make you feel fatigued and keep you awake at night.

The bronchitis doesn’t last more than 2-3 weeks although coughing may persist for a few weeks longer. Some refer to acute bronchitis as a “chest cold.” This condition is self-limited and antibiotics are not, in general, recommended. What follows are questions about acute bronchitis.

1) Is Acute Bronchitis Contagious?

If the bronchitis is caused by viruses or bacteria — yes, it’s contagious. If you come in contact with an infected person who coughs or sneezes, you can become infected. If the bronchitis is due to smoking, fumes or other such irritants, it’s not contagious.

2) What are the Symptoms?

As mentioned, bronchitis causes the linings of the windpipe (trachea) and bronchi (airway passages) to swell and become inflamed. The primary symptom is coughing that can produce mucus. At times people complain of noisy breathing which can sound like a whistle (wheezing). Many of the other symptoms are flu-like and might include:


  • Mild headache
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Chest tightness
  • Low grade fever may be present

3) What are the Causes of Acute Bronchitis?

Viruses are responsible for more than 90% of the cases of bronchitis which usually follows an upper respiratory infection. The disease is more common during the winter season and affects adults and children.

People who are exposed to fumes, air pollution or tobacco smoke (smoker’s cough) can get this disease. Those with chronic bronchitis can develop bouts of acute bronchitis.

4) When Should I See My Physician? See your physician if you have:

  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks
  • Cough with bloody mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Painful breathing
  • A temperature greater than 101 F.
  • If the bronchitis prevents you from sleeping
  • Recurrent episode of bronchitis

5) What Can I Do to Get Better?

  • Don’t smoke!
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Rest
  • Relieve headache and body aches by taking NSAIDS or acetaminophen.
  • Try over the counter medicine to suppress your cough.
  • Refer to question #4, “When to See Your Physician?”

The takeaway — Acute Bronchitis is a temporary illness most often due to viral infections that does not require antibiotics. However, a persistent cough may require laboratory tests, image studies or procedures to diagnose the cause of the problem.


Source: 2004 Medicinenet, Inc

The upper airways carry air from the nose and throat into the windpipe (trachea). The trachea at its lower end divides into the left and right bronchus (bronchial tubes)

The plural of bronchus is bronchi and they carry inhaled air further into the lungs. The bronchi become smaller as they branch into the lung tissues and are then called bronchioles. Finally, they evolve into alveoli which are involved with getting oxygen into the body and eliminating carbon dioxide.


Scott Kinkade, MD et al; Acute Bronchitis; American Family Physician, Octoer1, 2016

NIH, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; Bronchitis;

This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.