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Acute bronchitis Symptoms and Treatment

What is bronchitis  ?

The bronchitis is characterized by inflammation of the bronchi, the ducts that lead the inspired air from the trachea to the lungs. Inflammation makes breathing more difficult because the walls of the bronchi are swollen and produce a significant amount of mucus. Bronchitis is accompanied by a deep cough.

For the vast majority of people, bronchitis lasts 2 to 3 weeks and is not problematic. The cough may persist, however, a little longer. It is called bronchitis, acute bronchitis, to distinguish it from chronic bronchitis , which lasts more than 3 months per year.

Acute bronchitis occurs most often in the fall or winter. It is common: the majority of individuals are affected at least once in their lifetime.

Note. People who develop acute bronchitis and whose bronchi are weakened by another respiratory disease, such as asthma, have more pronounced symptoms. In addition, the risks of complications and treatments are different. It will not be discussed in this sheet.

Symptoms of bronchitis

  • A   deep cough. Coughing increases when lying down, outdoors when the air is cold and dry, and if the air is laden with irritating substances such as cigarette smoke.
  • The sputum viscous light colored, yellowish or greenish.
  • A general malaise: chills, fatigue, decreased appetite, headache, physical aches. There may be a slight fever.
  • Chest pain and feeling of compression of the lungs.
  • A short breath.

Note.  Sometimes bronchitis is accompanied by sinusitis, pharyngitis or laryngitis. In case of pharyngitis, the throat is irritated and there is pain when swallowing. In case of laryngitis, the voice becomes hoarse or goes off altogether.

Causes and risk factors of bronchitis

A viral infection

The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a viral infection. The viruses are inhaled, and then spread to the bronchi. Often a cold or flu precedes bronchitis. Bronchitis of viral origin is contagious.

A bacteria

More rarely, the infection can be caused by bacteria (for example, those that can also cause pneumonia) or by whooping cough .

Irritation of the lungs

Inhalation of fine particles in the air that irritate the lungs, such as those in cigarette smoke and fume from a wood stove can trigger or aggravate bronchitis. A high presence of mold can also be irritating, as can dust or toxic gases in the workplace, as can smog. Once inhaled, these particles weaken the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract. They would trigger particular inflammatory reactions. Some people are more sensitive to it. This is particularly the case for children and people who suffer from allergic rhinitis or asthma.

In some parts of Africa and South-East Asia, the problem is glaring. Several acute or chronic respiratory infections are generated by smoke produced by burning coal at the time of cooking. Women and young children are the most affected, sometimes deadly.


Finally, acute bronchitis can also be a sign of asthma. Indeed, in studies, researchers found that many people who see a doctor for acute bronchitis with asthma are in fact unwittingly.

Risk factors

  • Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Live or work in a place where chemicals circulate in the air and irritate the lungs.
  • Be exposed to high levels of air pollution during periods of fog (smog), bronchitis is more common. In addition, the fog accentuates the symptoms of bronchitis

People at risk

  • The children and the elderly.
  • People whose immune system is weakened by chronic stress, other illness, etc.
  • People with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema or heart failure.
  • People with cystic fibrosis because their bronchi remain clogged by secretions, which contributes to infections.


A simple bronchitis is not worrying in a healthy person. In most cases, the symptoms go away on their own without treatment in less than 21 days.

If bronchitis persists for more than 3 months or if repeated bronchitis occurs, it is important to obtain the appropriate treatments. See a doctor again (see our Chronic Bronchitis fact sheet).

In addition, acute bronchitis may be aggravated by pneumonia. This situation is more common among the elderly.

Measures to prevent bronchitis and its recurrences
The following tips will help prevent acute bronchitis, as well as their repetition or chronicity.

Life habits

Do not smoke or expose yourself to second-hand smoke. Smoking has been shown to inflame bronchial inflammation and trigger coughing. Another important consequence: the smoke thickens the secretions and paralyzes the bronchial lashes responsible for expelling the secretions. It appears that smoking cessation has the most positive effect on preventing bronchitis.

Strengthen your immune system. Rest, moderate, but regular exercise, and healthy eating (meeting your protein and vitamin and mineral needs, avoiding foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat, etc.) are the basis of good immunity. These measures help to prevent infections of all kinds and their recurrence. To find out more about this, read our fact sheet Strengthening the Immune System.

Prevention of colds and flu

It is obviously important to guard against common infections, such as colds and flu, since they often precede bronchitis. Some simple hygiene measures minimize the risk of:
– washing hands frequently;
– wear your hands as often as possible in the face;
– avoid confined spaces in the presence of infected persons.

For people with poor health, vaccination against influenza and pneumonia can reduce the risk of contracting bronchitis. Discuss with your doctor.
For more information, consult the Prevention section of our Cold and Flu charts.

Attention to the quality of the air

To the extent possible, this is to eliminate or avoid airborne irritants that aggravate or trigger respiratory discomfort: toxic gases, dust in the workplace, etc. Maintain the combustion appliances and their ventilation system (chimney or flues), if applicable. If you are at risk, it is better to avoid outdoor activities when the air pollution is high.


Although acute bronchitis usually cures itself, it is important to consult a doctor in order to have an accurate diagnosis, and even more so when the following symptoms occur:
– a high or sustained fever;
– shortness of breath, especially if it gets worse while lying down;
– sputum containing blood;
– significant chest pain;
– a general feeling of weakness which is accentuated.

The doctor examines the lungs with a stethoscope and makes specific recommendations based on the cause of the bronchitis and the reported symptoms.

The cough usually resolves itself in a few days without treatment. In case of night cough, the use of a humidifier in the room brings relief.

In more serious cases, if the doctor suspects pneumonia or other lung problem, a chest x – ray may be indicated.

Home care

– Take some rest.
– Hydrate well. Drink at least 8 cups a day of water and hot drinks, such as tea and broths.
– To help liquefy the mucus and promote its expulsion from the bronchi, maintain a humidity level of 30% to 50% indoors, by ventilating the rooms well (if necessary, use a humidifier with cold or lukewarm steam). Taking hot baths is also beneficial.
– Throughout the disease, avoid exposure to smoke cold air and air pollutants as much as possible.
– Follow the other lifestyle measures described in the Prevention section.


If necessary, various medications can improve the comfort of the patient.

Antitussives. It is best not to take an over-the-counter cough remedy , such as dextrometorphan syrup (DXM) or codeine. Indeed, the function of the cough is to evacuate the mucus and clear the airways. However, if coughs interfere too much with sleep or usual activities, these cures can provide helpful relief. However, be aware that their effectiveness is limited or no for many adults and their use is not recommended for children.

Bronchodilators . In case of wheezing or rattles, the use of a drug that opens the bronchi often helps. The doctor may then consider prescribing a bronchodilator beta2 agonist type inhaler (eg, salbutamol or Ventolin).

Bronchial fluid . Guaifenesin, for example, has an expectorant effect that liquefies bronchial secretions. It is found in the active ingredients of some anti-cough or decongestant syrup (eg, Robitussin Chest Congestion). However, according to studies, it is not certain that these drugs are actually more effective than a placebo.

Antibiotics . In the vast majority of cases, bronchitis is caused by a virus . Antibiotics are then of no use. In addition, the greenish yellow color of the secretions is not an indicator of bacterial infection and does not justify the prescription of antibiotics. However, if a bacterial infection is diagnosed, antibiotics may sometimes be prescribed.

In case of sore throat or headache , aspirin (for adults only), acetaminophen (Tylenol, Pando, etc.) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motri, etc.) can bring relief.

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