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Bronchitis FAQs

Reviewed by Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

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Q:What is bronchitis?

A:Bronchitis describes inflammation of the air passages within the lungs.

It occurs when the trachea (windpipe) and the large and small bronchi (airways) within the lungs become inflamed because of infection or irritation from other causes.

People who have bronchitis often have a cough that brings up mucus. Mucus is a slimy substance made by the lining of the bronchial tubes. Bronchitis also may cause wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe), chest pain or discomfort, a low fever, and shortness of breath.

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Q:What are the two types of bronchitis?

A:Acute and chronic bronchitis are the two main types of bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis refers to a short term bronchitis and chronic refers ongoing bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis lasts from a few days to 10 days. However, coughing may last for several weeks after the infection has resolved.

Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing, serious condition. It occurs if the lining of the bronchial tubes is constantly irritated and inflamed, causing a long-term cough with mucus.

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Q:Bacteria, viruses, and chemicals may cause acute bronchitis. True or False?

A:True.

Acute bronchitis describes the inflammation of the bronchi usually caused by a viral infection, (although bacteria and chemicals also may cause acute bronchitis). In terms of viral infection, the common cold (also referred to as an upper respiratory infection) is usually the cause for acute bronchitis.

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Q:What is usually the cause of chronic bronchitis?

A:Smoking is usually the cause of chronic bronchitis.

There can be many causes of chronic bronchitis, but the main cause is tobacco use, specifically, cigarette smoke.

Chronic bronchitis is defined as a daily cough with sputum production for at least 3 months, 2 years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is a diagnosis usually made based on clinical findings of a long-term persistent cough usually associated with tobacco abuse.

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Q:Bronchitis is contagious?

A:Bronchitis is sometimes contagious.

Bronchitis describes a group of symptoms (including airway inflammation, over-production of mucous, and cough), which can have various causes:
- If the cause of the bronchitis is viral or bacterial, it can be contagious.
- If the cause of the bronchitis is due to smoking, air pollution, or other inhaled irritants, it is not contagious.

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Q:If you have bronchitis, it is most important to drink plenty of fluids. True or False?

A:If you have bronchitis, it is important to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.

Hydration keeps secretions into the bronchial tubes more liquid-like and easier to expel.

If a fever is present, it is important to treat the fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Conventional treatment for acute bronchitis may consist of simple measures such as getting plenty of rest, and possibly getting a prescription for an inhaled bronchodilator and/or cough syrup. In some cases of chronic bronchitis, oral steroids to reduce inflammation and/or supplemental oxygen may be necessary.

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Q:Acute bronchitis is often referred to as a chest cold. True or False?

A:True.

When a person catches a cold, it often turns into bronchitis, which is sometimes referred to as a chest cold.

Cough is a common cold symptom, and is almost always seen with bronchitis. Coughing is the body's way of getting rid of phlegm or mucus.

If a cough persists after the cold has resolved, or if you are coughing up thick green or yellow phlegm, if you are wheezing, running a fever higher than 101 F (38.3 C), having night sweats, or coughing up blood; you should see a doctor, as these may be symptoms and signs of a more serious illness.

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Q:Most people expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for bronchitis. True or False?

A:True.

Once diagnosed with bronchitis, people usually expect their doctors to prescribe antibiotics as a course of treatment.

Antibiotics are not necessarily indicated for the treatment of acute bronchitis. This is because most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are not necessary to resolve the viral infection. Since acute bronchitis almost always resolves on its own, only take antibiotics for acute bronchitis if they are prescribed by a health care professional. Taking antibiotics when they are not necessary may contribute to antibiotic resistance.

If a health care professional diagnoses another type of respiratory infection such as pneumonia or whooping cough (pertussis), antibiotics will most likely be prescribed.

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Q:Bronchitis may be prevented in many people. True or False?

A:True.

You may prevent contracting bronchitis if you:
- Don't smoke.
- Don't allow others to smoke in your home.
- Stay away from or reduce your time around things that irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, such as dust or pets.
- If you catch a cold, get plenty of rest.
- Take your medicine exactly the way your doctor has prescribed.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Wash your hands often.
- Do not share food, cups, glasses, or eating utensils.
- Keep you and your children up to date with recommended immunizations.

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