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Have you started coughing recently? Are you feeling run-down? Maybe there’s some soreness in your chest? These signs and symptoms could mean you have acute bronchitis. Summit Health pulmonologist Daniel Laurie, MD, helps answer some questions about this common condition.

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is a short-term condition that occurs when the airways to the lungs, known as the bronchi, become inflamed. This inflammation causes you to cough, sometimes producing mucus. Other symptoms may include:

  • Chest congestion or tightness
  • Mild shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling tired
  • Slight fever
  • Mild headache or body aches
  • Sore throat

Most people recover from acute bronchitis within a few days, although your cough may persist for up to a few weeks.

People with the lung disease COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which includes chronic or long-term bronchitis, are more likely to experience episodes of acute bronchitis.

What causes acute bronchitis?

The same viruses that cause colds and the flu often cause acute bronchitis. Less common causes include bacterial infection and exposure to allergens or irritants like tobacco smoke, air pollution, or fumes.

COVID-19 symptoms can be very similar to acute bronchitis. The only way to know for sure whether you have COVID-19 is to get tested.

How is acute bronchitis treated?

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own. Your doctor may recommend ways to feel better while your body fights off the infection, including:

  • Resting at home
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Running a humidifier
  • Using over-the-counter cough medicines containing guaifenesin or dextromethorphan, and pain relievers or fever reducers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen 
  • Taking prescription medicine as directed
  • Sucking on throat lozenges
  • Avoiding strenuous activity or exercise while you recover

Although a bacterial infection may cause acute bronchitis, antibiotics generally should be avoided. Antibiotic use in simple acute bronchitis does not improve outcomes. In fact, taking antibiotics when they are not needed can have harmful side effects, and contributes to a growing global problem of antibiotic resistance.

When should I see a doctor?

Acute bronchitis usually resolves within a few weeks. Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any of the following or other symptoms that concern you:

  • Temperature above 100.4° F
  • Worsening shortness of breath
  • Cough with bloody mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Symptoms that last longer than three weeks
  • Repeated episodes of bronchitis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and medical history to diagnose bronchitis. They may also order a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia.

Can I prevent acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis can’t always be prevented, but there are easy ways to protect yourself and others from respiratory infections:

  • Wash your hands often. Use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Get recommended vaccines, such as the flu shot.
  • Cough into a tissue, your elbow, or your shoulder. Stay home if you feel sick.
  • Avoid being near other people who are ill.
  • Wear a mask in public.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.