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Bronchitis

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an infection of the main airways of the lungs, called the bronchi. The infection makes the bronchi irritated and inflamed, causing you to produce and cough up more mucus than normal.

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • acute bronchitis - lasts for less than three weeks
  • chronic bronchitis - you cough up mucus for at least three months of the year and for at least two years in a row

What are the signs of bronchitis?

The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a hacking cough that often brings up clear, yellow-grey or greenish mucus.

If you have bronchitis, you may also have other symptoms, including:

  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • a runny or blocked nose
  • aches and pains
  • tiredness

What are the best antibiotics for bronchitis?

Antibiotics are not routinely prescribed for bronchitis because the condition is usually caused by a virus. Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections.

However, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you have bronchitis. These circumstances include if you:

  • have an increased risk of complications, such as pneumonia
  • are older than 80
  • have a history of heart, lung, kidney or liver disease
  • have a weakened immune system, which could be the result of an underlying condition or a side effect of a treatment like steroids
  • have cystic fibrosis

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for bronchitis, they will most likely give you a five-day course of amoxicillin or doxycycline.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus that is spread through direct contact or coughing and sneezing. You can help to prevent spreading the infection by washing your hands often and using disposable tissues.

How do you get bronchitis?

Bronchitis is most commonly caused by a virus, such as the common cold or the flu virus. The virus is spread through direct contact, touching surfaces that an infected person has touched or by coughing and sneezing.

Sometimes, bronchitis can be caused by certain bacteria.

Other causes of bronchitis include breathing in irritant substances, such as smog, chemicals (at home or work) or tobacco smoke (including inhaling second-hand smoke).

How long is bronchitis contagious?

Chronic bronchitis is not contagious but acute bronchitis is, as it is usually caused by cold or flu viruses.

The exact amount of time bronchitis remains contagious is hard to know because it depends on the type of virus you have. However, you should assume that you can spread the infection to others if you still have symptoms.

How do you treat bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis usually gets better within a few weeks and without treatment.

You can help your recovery by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking lots of fluid – this helps prevent dehydration and thins the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • taking painkillers - if you have a headache, high temperature or aches and pains

There is little evidence that cough medicines are effective at treating bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of long-term lung condition where, unlike acute bronchitis, your symptoms do not go away completely.

Chronic bronchitis cannot be cured, but you can help to improve your symptoms in various ways, including:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • doing regular moderate exercise
  • avoiding smoking
  • taking medicines - such as bronchodilators and steroids to open up the airways and mucolytic medicines to make it easier to cough up mucus. Your doctor can prescribe these medicines if needed

What’s the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia?

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both lung infections. However, bronchitis is an infection of the main airways of the lungs, while pneumonia is a deeper lung infection that affects the clusters of tiny air sacs found at the end of the airways of the lungs. These tiny sacs become inflamed and fill up with fluid.

Pneumonia is the most common complication of bronchitis.

Can you die from bronchitis?

Bronchitis is not usually life-threatening. Most cases resolve within three weeks. However, bronchitis can lead to complications, such as pneumonia, which can be fatal if left untreated.

See your doctor as soon as possible or go to hospital if:

  • your cough is severe
  • your cough lasts longer than three weeks
  • you have a high temperature for more than three days
  • you cough up mucus streaked with blood
  • you have an underlying heart or lung condition, such as asthma, heart failure or emphysema
  • you're becoming more breathless
  • you have had repeated episodes of bronchitis

How long does bronchitis last?

Acute bronchitis usually lasts up to three weeks. Sometimes, bronchitis can last longer. The condition is called chronic bronchitis if you have a daily productive cough that lasts for at least three months of the year and for at least two years in a row.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.