Health Guide

Acute bronchitis in adults

What is it?

Acute bronchitis (brong-KEYE-tis) is swelling and irritation in the air passages of the lungs. This irritation may cause coughing and other breathing problems. Acute bronchitis happens most often during the winter. It often starts because of another illness, such as a cold or the flu. The illness then spreads from your nose and throat to your windpipe and airways. Some people call bronchitis a "chest cold." Acute bronchitis is usually not a serious illness. It usually lasts about two weeks, although coughing can last over a month. In healthy people, acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own.

What causes acute bronchitis?

  • Acute bronchitis is most often caused by an infection. The infection is most often caused by a type of germ called a virus. It is sometimes caused by other kinds of germs, such as bacteria (bak-TEE-ree-ah), yeast, or a fungus.
  • Acute bronchitis can be caused by breathing air that has chemical fumes, dust, or pollution. Smoke, such as from a cigarette or a fire, may also cause bronchitis. This type of bronchitis is sometimes called occupational (ok-u-PAY-shun-al) or environmental (en-veye-roh-MEN-tal) bronchitis.
  • You may be more likely to get bronchitis if you have lung disease (such as asthma or emphysema), or if you smoke. Having a long-term medical condition (such as heart failure) may also increase your risk of getting bronchitis. You may get bronchitis if you are allergic (al-ER-jik) to something in the air that you breathe, such as pollen.

What are the signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis?

  • The most common symptom of acute bronchitis is a frequent cough. The cough of bronchitis may last a month or more. Your cough may be dry, or it may bring up mucus from your lungs. This phlegm (flem) may be green, yellow, white, or have streaks of blood in it.
  • You may feel tired and have body aches. You may have a fever, chills, or a sore throat. Your nose may feel runny or stuffy. You may have chest pain when you cough or take a deep breath. You may have noisy breathing (such as a high-pitched wheezing) and mild shortness of breath.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed? From your signs and symptoms, caregivers will learn if you have acute bronchitis or another medical condition. If your symptoms are very bad or if you have other health problems, you may need blood tests or x-rays. These tests can help caregivers see how your body is handling your illness. Tests can also help make sure you do not have a more serious illness, such as pneumonia (noo-MOH-nyah) or heart failure.

How is acute bronchitis treated? Most people with acute bronchitis are treated at home. Some things that may help you recover from bronchitis include the following:

While you are sick, do not drink alcohol. Alcohol dulls your urge to cough and sneeze. When you have bronchitis, you need to be able to cough and sneeze to clear your air passages. Alcohol also causes your body to lose fluid. This can make the mucus in your lungs thicker and harder to cough up.

Avoid smoke, dust, and fumes (strong smells). Do not smoke, and do not allow others to smoke around you. Avoid working around chemicals, fumes, or dust.

Get plenty of rest. You may feel like resting more. Slowly start to do more each day. Rest when you feel it is needed.

Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition can help your body fight illness. Eat a variety of healthy foods every day. Your diet should include fruits, vegetables, breads and protein (such as chicken, fish, and beans). Dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and ice cream) can sometimes cause more mucus. Ask your caregiver if you should decrease your intake of dairy products while you are coughing up mucus.

Drink enough liquids. Be sure to drink enough liquids every day. Most people should drink at least eight (8 ounce) cups of water a day. This helps to keep your air passages moist and better able to get rid of germs and other irritants.

Use a humidifier or vaporizer. Use a cool mist humidifier or a vaporizer to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe, and help decrease your cough. Be sure to clean your humidifier with soap and water every day to prevent germs.

Use medicines the right way. Medicines, when used correctly, may help you feel better.

  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: You may use ibuprofen (eye-bu-PROH-fen) or acetaminophen (a-seet-a-MIN-oh-fen) to help decrease body aches and fever. These may be bought in a grocery or drug store. Always follow directions on the package, unless your caregiver tells you differently. Taking too much medicine, or taking it too often can cause serious (very bad) health problems.
  • Antiviral medicine: Antiviral (an-teye-VEYE-ral) medicine may help decrease the number of days you are sick. This medicine works only if you take it within one to two days of the start of your symptoms.
  • Cough medicine: You may need a cough medicine to help loosen phlegm in your lungs and make it easier to cough up. This type of cough medicine is called an expectorant (ek-SPEK-toh-rant). Drink plenty of water if you are taking an expectorant type of cough medicine. Coughing the phlegm out of your lungs can help you breathe easier. A type of cough medicine that decreases your urge to cough is called a cough suppressant (su-PRES-ant). If your cough is producing mucus, do not take a cough suppressant unless your caregiver tells you to. For example, your caregiver may recommend that you take a cough suppressant at night so you can rest.

Inhalers: Your caregiver may give you one or more inhalers to help you breathe easier and cough less. An inhaler gives your medicine in a mist form so that you can breathe it into your lungs. Using an inhaler the right way takes practice. Ask your caregiver to show you how to use your inhaler correctly.

Steroids: Steroid (STER-oid) medicine may help to open your air passages so you can breathe easier. Do not stop taking this medicine without your caregiver's OK. Stopping on your own can cause problems.

Antibiotics and bronchitis: Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Antibiotic (an-ti-bi-AH-tik) medicine does not work against viruses, only bacteria. Most people with acute bronchitis do not need antibiotics. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to the medicines not working when they are needed. Antibiotics can have side effects, which makes it unwise to take them when you do not need them. Do not ask for antibiotics if your caregiver says you do not need them. Your caregiver may give you antibiotics if you are at a high risk of getting pneumonia. You may be at risk of getting pneumonia if you are elderly. Other health problems, such as lung disease or heart failure, also increases this risk. If you are given antibiotics, take them until they are gone, even if you feel better. Never "save" antibiotics or take leftover antibiotics that were given to you for another illness.

How can I decrease my chances of getting acute bronchitis?

Get the vaccinations (shots) you need. Ask your caregiver if you should get vaccinated (VAK-si-nay-ted) against the flu or pneumonia. The best time to get a flu shot is in October or November. Flu shots are repeated every year. Pneumonia shots are usually repeated every five to six years. Ask your caregiver which vaccinations are right for you.

Quit smoking. Do not smoke, and do not allow others to smoke around you. Smoking increases your risk of lung infections and bronchitis. Smoking also makes it harder for you to get better after having a lung infection. Talk to your caregiver if you need help quitting smoking.

Avoid things that may irritate your lungs.

  • Stay inside, or cover your mouth and nose with a scarf when outside during cold weather. You should also stay inside on days when air pollution levels are high. If you have allergies, stay inside when pollen counts are high.
  • Decrease your use of things that add irritants to the air of your home. Products to avoid using indoors include spray-on deodorant, bug spray, and hairspray. Stay away from chemical fumes, dust, and smoke. Wear proper protective equipment (such as a face mask) if you must work around dust and fumes.

Avoid the spread of germs. You can decrease your chance of getting acute bronchitis and other illnesses by doing the following:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing hand lotion or gel with you when you leave the house. You can use the lotion or gel to clean your hands when there is no water available.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.
  • Always cover your mouth when you cough to prevent germs from spreading. It is best to cough into a tissue or your shirt sleeve, rather than into your hand. Insist that those around you cover their mouths when they cough as well.
  • Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.

Herbs and Supplements:

Before taking any herbs or supplements, ask your caregiver if it is OK. Talk to your caregiver about how much you should take. If you are using this medicine without instructions from your caregiver, follow the directions on the label. Do not take more medicine or take it more often than the directions tell you to. The herbs and supplements listed may or may not help treat your condition.


  • Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpura) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Osha (Ligusticum porteri) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.
  • Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) has been used for many years, but has not been studied in people who have bronchitis.


  • NAC (N-acetyl cystine) may help with bronchitis.

Other ways of treating your symptoms : Other ways to treat your symptoms are available to you.

Talk to your caregiver if:

  • Your skin is itchy, or you have a rash. Your medicines may be causing these symptoms. This may mean you are allergic (uh-LER-jik) to your medicine.
  • You have any questions or concerns about your bronchitis.
  • Your breathing problems do not go away or they get worse.


  • You faint (pass out) or feel like fainting, or you have new problems with thinking clearly.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.
  • You find it very hard to breathe.
  • You have swelling of your lips, tongue, or throat that makes it hard to breathe or swallow.

Risks: Your bronchitis may turn into a serious infection, such as pneumonia. The chance of your bronchitis becoming a serious illness is increased if you have other health problems. The elderly and those with certain other health problems may need to be treated in a hospital. Having many respiratory (breathing) illnesses over a period of time may cause permanent (life-long) lung problems. Tell your caregiver if you have a cough that is hard to get rid of or that comes back often.

Care Agreement:

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care will be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.


1. Stey C, Steurer J, Bachmann S et al: The effect of oral N-acetylcysteine in chronic bronchitis: a quantitative systematic review. Eur Respir J 2000; 16(2):254-262.

Last Updated: 7/4/2018
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