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Bronchitis: Symptoms, Testing, and Treatment

  • Published: 2014-12-10 (Revised/Updated 2018-01-25) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact:
  • Synopsis: Information regarding bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, includes symptoms and treatment options.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of a person's bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from their lungs. People who have bronchitis often times cough up thick mucus that may be discolored. Bronchitis can be either, 'acute,' or, 'chronic.'

An inflammation of the mucous membranes of the bronchi (the larger and medium-sized airways that carry airflow from the trachea into the more distal parts of the lung parenchyma). Bronchitis can be divided into two categories: acute and chronic.

Bronchitis often develops from a cold or other form of respiratory infection; acute bronchitis is very common. Chronic bronchitis is a more serious condition and involves a constant irritation or inflammation of the lining of a person's bronchial tubes, many times due to smoking. Acute bronchitis usually improves within a few days without lasting effects, although a person might continue to cough for weeks. If; however, a person has repeated bouts of bronchitis they may have chronic bronchitis, something that requires medical attention. Chronic bronchitis is one of the conditions included in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or, 'COPD.'

Signs and Symptoms of Bronchitis

For either acute or chronic forms of bronchitis, a person may experience some different signs and symptoms. These signs and symptoms may include the following:

If a person experiences acute bronchitis, they may have a nagging cough that lingers for several weeks after the inflammation has resolved. Chronic bronchitis is defined as a productive cough that lasts for at least three months with recurring bouts happening for at least two consecutive years. For those with chronic bronchitis, they are likely to have periods when their signs and symptoms become worse. During these times, the person may have acute bronchitis on top of their chronic bronchitis.

Visiting a Doctor for Bronchitis

Fig. A shows the location of the lungs and bronchial tubes in the body. Fig. B is an enlarged, detailed view of a normal bronchial tube. Fig. C is an enlarged, detailed view of a bronchial tube with bronchitis. The tube is inflamed and contains more mucus than usual.About This Image: Fig. A shows the location of the lungs and bronchial tubes in the body. Fig. B is an enlarged, detailed view of a normal bronchial tube. Fig. C is an enlarged, detailed view of a bronchial tube with bronchitis. The tube is inflamed and contains more mucus than usual.Bronchitis may be a very real reason to visit a doctor for treatment. It is important to visit a doctor if your cough lasts more than three weeks, prevents you from sleeping, or is accompanied by a fever of more than 100.4 F or 38 C. Additional reasons to visit a doctor in relation to bronchitis include the production of discolored mucus, blood, wheezing or shortness of breath.

Causes and Risk Factors of Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is often times caused by viruses, usually the same viruses that cause colds and influenza. Antibiotics do not kill viruses so this type of medication is not useful in the majority of instances of bronchitis. The most common cause of bronchitis in America is cigarette smoking. Dust, toxic gases and air pollution in the workplace or environment may also contribute to bronchitis. Some factors that may increase a person's risk of bronchitis exist. These risk factors may include the following:

Gastric Reflux: Repeated bouts of severe gastric reflux may irritate a person's throat and make them more prone to developing bronchitis.

Cigarette Smoke: Those who smoke or live with a person who does smoke are at increased risk of both acute and chronic forms of bronchitis.

Exposure to Irritants: A person's risk of developing bronchitis is increased if they work around certain lung irritants such as textiles or grains, or if they are exposed to chemical fumes.

Low Resistance: Low resistance might result from another acute illness such as a cold, or from a chronic condition that compromises a person's immune system. Infants, seniors and young children are more vulnerable to infection.

Even though a single bout of bronchitis usually is not cause for concern, it may lead to pneumonia in some people. Repeated bouts of bronchitis might indicate that you are developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Testing For and Diagnosing Bronchitis

In the first few days of illnesses it may be hard to distinguish the signs and symptoms of bronchitis from those associated with a common cold. During the physical examination, a doctor will use a stethoscope to listen closely to the person's lungs as they breathe. In some instances, a doctor might suggest some tests that could include the following:

Chest X-Ray: A chest X-ray may help to determine if a person has pneumonia or another condition that could explain their cough. The X-ray is particularly important if the person is currently, or ever has been, a cigarette smoker.

Sputum Tests: Sputum is the mucus that a person coughs up from their lungs. It may be tested to find out if they have whooping cough or another form of illness that could be helped by antibiotics. Sputum can also be tested for signs that the person has allergies.

Pulmonary Function Test: During a pulmonary function test, a person blows into a device called a, 'spirometer,' which measures how much air their lungs are able to hold and how quickly they can expel the air from their lungs. The test checks for signs of asthma or emphysema.

Treating Bronchitis

Most people who experience acute bronchitis find the condition resolves without medical treatment within a two week period of time. In some circumstances, a doctor may prescribe medications which could include:

Antibiotics: Bronchitis usually results from a viral infection, which means antibiotics will not be effective. A doctor might; however, prescribe an antibiotic if they suspect the person has a bacterial infection.

Cough Medication: It is best not to suppress a cough that produces mucus because coughing helps to remove irritants from a person's lungs and air passages. If the person's cough prevents them from sleeping, they might take cough suppressants prior to going to bed.

Additional Medications: If a person has allergies, asthma, or COPD a doctor might recommend an inhaler and other medications to reduce inflammation and to open narrowed passages to the person's lungs.

Bronchitis Therapies

If a person has chronic bronchitis, they might benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation. Pulmonary rehabilitation involves a breathing exercise program in which a respiratory therapist teaches the person how to breathe more easily and increase their ability to exercise. Feeling and being better are clear goals and people with bronchitis might want to try some different self-care measures. These measure include the following:

Avoiding Lung Irritants: Do not smoke; wear a mask if the air is polluted or if you are exposed to irritants such as household cleaners or paint.

Consider Wearing a Face Mask Outside: If cold air aggravates your cough and causes you to be short of breath, wear a cold-air face mask outside.

Use a Humidifier: Moist and warm air helps to relieve coughs while loosening mucus in a person's airways. Make sure to clean the humidifier in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations to avoid the growth of fungi and bacteria in the water container.


Some different tips are suggested in order to reduce a person's risk of bronchitis. Avoid cigarette smoke, it increases a person's risk of chronic bronchitis. Get vaccinated; many instances of acute bronchitis result from the influenza virus. Get a yearly influenza vaccine - it may help protect you from getting the flu. You might also want to consider vaccination that protects against some forms of pneumonia.

Wash your hands! It simply cannot be said enough. To reduce your risk of catching a viral infection, wash your hands often and develop a habit of using hand sanitizers. Wear a surgical mask if you have COPD and are around crowds or are at work.

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