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Bronchitis (Acute) Contagoius Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Recovery Time

Illustration of bronchitis.
Source: iStock

What should you know about acute bronchitis?

The medical definition of acute bronchitis is a cough lasting five or more days suggests acute bronchitis as a cause. Sometimes people with recurrent acute bronchitis (flare-ups) develop chronic bronchitis and/or a respiratory infection. Bronchitis is an inflammation of your bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air to your lungs and makeup the bronchial tree).

Is acute bronchitis contagious?

Acute bronchitis can be contagious, however, acute bronchitis caused by exposure to pollutants, tobacco smoke and other chemicals is not contagious

What are the signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis?

The primary symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough. Other symptoms include sputum production, sore throat, nasal congestion, headache, and cough up sputum or vomit mucus.

How causes acute bronchitis?

The most common way people become infected with or “get” acute bronchitis is by a viral or bacterial infection; however, other causes may include irritants like tobacco smoke, air pollution, or chemicals. Some home remedies may relieve and soothe bronchitis symptoms.

What are the types of bronchitis?

There are two types of bronchitis 1) acute bronchitis, and 2) chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is defined as a cough that occurs every day with sputum production that lasts for at least 3 months, 2 years in a row.

What drugs treat acute bronchitis?

Some medications may relieve bronchitis symptoms, for example, cough suppressants, NSAIDs, acetaminophen, and antibiotics (for bacterial infections only). In children under age 2, a pediatrician should be consulted before OCT medicines are used. In children under age 2, consult a pediatrician before using over the counter (OCT) medicine.

How do you get acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is contagious if the causes is viral or bacterial, and will last until the the symptoms go away. Bronchitis usually lasts about 10 to 20 days, if it lasts longer than that you probably have chronic bronchitis, which is defined as a cough that occurs every day with sputum production for the last three months 2 years in a row.

Source: Bigstock

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes (the airways that allow air to pass from the mouth to the lungs) that usually is caused by viruses or bacteria. Although other irritants for example, smoke or pollution, also may cause the disease, they are far less frequent causes.

Is acute bronchitis contagious?

The majority of people with acute bronchitis are contagious if the cause is an infectious agent such as a virus or bacterium. The contagious period for both bacteria and viruses is usually as long as the patient has symptoms although for a few viruses, then maybe contagious a few days before symptoms appear. Contagious viruses that may cause acute bronchitis are listed in the causes section. Tracheobronchitis (inflammation of both the bronchiole(s) and the trachea) may lead to lung infections (respiratory infections like pneumonia).

People usually are less likely to be contagious as the symptoms wane. However, acute bronchitis caused by the immune system, exposure to pollutants, tobacco smoke (including second-hand smoke), or other environmental chemicals or toxins that are bronchiole and/or lung irritants are not contagious.

A woman coughing in bed due to bronchitis.
Source: iStock

What are the signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis?

Coughing is the most common symptom of acute bronchitis. The coughing begins early in the disease and usually lasts about 10 to 20 days as it gradually subsides. About 50% of individuals have a productive cough with either clear, yellow, greenish, or occasionally blood tinged sputum. Consequently, signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:

Children may also have:

  • Runny nose
  • Mild fever
  • May gag or vomit mucus

If a person develops fever, shortness of breath, cyanosis or chest pain, they likely have another problem but not acute bronchitis.


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The Influenza virus.
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What causes acute bronchitis?

The most common cause of acute bronchitis are viral (short-term viral). There is no "bronchitis virus” as many different types of viruses can cause bronchitis. The main genera of viruses that cause acute bronchitis include:

Many people develop mild symptoms of acute bronchitis so often that the exact virus that caused the infection is never determined. In addition, the common cold may mimic an acute bronchitis flair-up.

Bacteria are less common causes of acute bronchitis. Bacterial causes of the disease (bacterial bronchitis) include:

Other irritants (for example, tobacco smoke, chemicals, etc.) may irritate the bronchi and cause acute bronchitis. Consequently, bronchial or bronchitis infections are not the only cause of acute bronchitis.

A mother and daughter in bed both suffering from bronchitis.
Source: Bigstock

Who gets acute bronchitis?

Risk factors for acute bronchitis are the same as those for getting viral and bacterial infections and two include:

Being in close contact with people that are coughing, sneezing, and touching items that infected persons recently handled.

People that are exposed to air pollution, tobacco smoke, and to chemicals that are aerosolized are at higher risk for acute bronchitis. Unfortunately, many people worldwide are at risk of getting this type of bronchitis. About 4.6 out of 100 individuals may develop acute bronchitis each year (or about 12.5 million in the US). The highest risks for the disease are the winter months.

How can I tell if I have acute bronchitis?

Because acute bronchitis has many causes is often self-limiting within 10 to 20 days and its main symptom is coughing, most doctors consider the diagnosis after a history and physical without additional tests. If the diagnosis is not clear or the specific cause needs to be identified , such tests as sputum cytology, throat cultures, influenza tests, chest X-rays, blood gas, procalcitonin levels and even bronchoscopy have been used to identify specific viral, bacterial and other sources or causes or rule out more severe illnesses (such as a pneumonia). Usually, the symptoms of acute bronchitis are mild to moderate and symptoms like cough are treated for a few days before a more extensive workup is begun.

How long does acute bronchitis last?

  • A cough lasting five or more days suggests acute bronchitis as a cause.
  • Acute bronchitis usually lasts about 10 to 20 days.
  • People with recurrent acute bronchitis may develop chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is defined as a cough that occurs every day with sputum production that lasts for at least 3 months, 2 years in a row. However, acute bronchitis may develop into chronic bronchitis in some individuals and even lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

A mother giving her daughter cough medicine in bed.
Source: iStock

What natural or home remedies treat and cure acute bronchitis?

Home remedies may help reduce acute bronchitis symptoms. For example:

  • Stay well hydrated by drinking fluids
  • Use a humidifier to moisten the air.
  • Avoid dairy products because they thicken mucous secretions
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine because of potential drug interactions
  • Avoid exposure to environmental smoke and other air pollutants
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants and cough drops can help reduce coughing symptoms.

If symptoms worsen, see your doctor. For children under age 2 (and some doctors recommend under age 6), the doctor should be consulted before OTC medicines are used.

What is the treatment for acute bronchitis?

Bed rest and supportive care such as reducing coughing are the main treatments for acute bronchitis. Usually, antibiotics are not needed, especially if bronchitis has viral or environmental causes.

For some people who have wheezing with their cough, bronchodilators (beta2 agonists) may be helpful.

The most useful treatments are directed at reducing cough symptoms with over the counter preparations containing guaifenesin (an expectorant) and a mucolytic. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) often are added to reduce inflammation and help relieve discomfort. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend giving OTC cough and cold medications to children under two years of age. These medicines may cause harmful side effects that can be life-threatening to young children. Side effects include organ toxicity (kidneys, for example) and death.


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A woman using an inhaler to treat her bronchitis.
Source: Getty Images

What medications treat and cure acute bronchitis?

The following medication(s) may be helpful for people with acute bronchitis.

Cough suppressants

  • Robitussin and Delsym: Use this medicine sparingly because coughing helps remove irritants from the air passages, and you want to cough these irritants out of these passges in the lungs.
  • Mucolytics (Mucinex, Mucomyst): These medicines help remove sticky mucus from the airways.
  • Acetaminophen and NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and/or acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) may reduce inflammation and/or discomfort.
  • Inhaler bronchodilators: This medicine opens airways, which makes it easier to breathe.
  • Antibiotics: Acute bronchitis is treated with antibiotics only if the cause is bacterial (suspected or diagnosed). Reports indicate that about 65%-80% of people with acute bronchitis receive an antibiotic despite evidence that antibiotics are not effective in treating acute bronchitis (with a few exceptions). Antibiotics are not recommended for routine acute bronchitis treatment.

Do not give drugs like NSAIDs and aspirin to young children and young adults due to the risk of Reye's syndrome. Check with a pediatrician before giving over-the-counter medicine to your child.

Which specialties of doctors treat acute bronchitis?

Primary care physicians and pediatricians often treat acute bronchitis. If acute bronchitis reoccurs (recurring bronchitis), other specialties such as allergists, infectious disease or ENT specialists may be consulted. If you are pregnant, consult your OB/GYN or Midwife.

A doctor examines a teen girl with bronchitis using a stethoscope.
Source: Bigstock

When should I contact my doctor about acute bronchitis?

Most people do not need to contact their doctor since acute bronchitis is usually limited to about 10 to 20 days and then resolves. However, call your doctor or other healthcare professional if your symptoms become severe or if you develop a fever that does not go down. Moreover, if other symptoms develop (short of breath, night sweats), if the symptoms persist past about 20 day, or if you have repeated bouts of acute bronchitis during the year, you should contact your doctor.

If you think your child has acute bronchitis (especially those aged two and under), call your pediatrician to have your child seen. Some doctors recommend that pediatricians treat children under 6 years old.

What are the possible complications of acute bronchitis?

Complications of acute bronchitis are infrequent but include a respiratory infection like pneumonia (viral and/or bacterial), chronic bronchitis, asthma, and sinusitis. In addition, depending on the pathogen, complications include tuberculosis, whooping cough (pertussis), and other infectious lung diseases. It may eventually lead to development of COPD.

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Reviewed on 2/8/2019
CDC. Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor’s Offices; Adult Treatment Recommendations. Updated: Oct 03, 2017.

MCarolan, PL, MD. Pediatric Bronchitis. Medscape. Updated: Jan 22, 2019.

Gonzales, R. et al. Management of uncomplicated acute bronchitis in adults. Ann Intern Med. 2001 Mar 20;134(6):521-9.

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