What Is Acute Bronchitis? Here's How Doctors Explain It

The good news: It usually goes away on its own.

With fall and winter fast approaching, you’re probably suspicious of every sniffle and sneeze you hear at your office or in the grocery store—and with good reason: Cold and flu cases rise during the winter months (cold and flu viruses typically live longer in cold, dry air)—which means illnesses that are associated with the cold and flu are also more prevalent.

Acute bronchitis is one of those conditions—but what exactly is it, and what should you do if a friend or family member comes down with it? Health spoke to cold and flu experts to get the facts; here's what you should know.

What is acute bronchitis, and what are the symptoms of it?

So, bronchitis is a condition in which the airways in the lungs (aka the bronchial tubes) become inflamed—and there are two types: chronic bronchitis and acute bronchitis.

Just FYI: Chronic bronchitis is often part of a serious condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lasts a few months and comes back more than two years in a row. Acute bronchitis is a shorter, less severe version, and it's more common than chronic bronchitis. “When people refer to having bronchitis, they are typically referring to acute bronchitis," Emily Pennington, MD, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.

The key symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough—and it can get pretty bad. "The symptoms of acute bronchitis include an acute onset cough that may or may not be accompanied by phlegm production,” says Dr. Pennington, who adds that the phlegm can be clear, white, yellow, or green.

Most patients with acute bronchitis also complain of a tightness in chest when breathing, and have a low-grade fever, Isaac Namdar, MD, an otolaryngologist at Mount Sinai West in New York, tells Health. Dr. Namdar adds that one symptom of chronic bronchitis is feeling like you can’t catch your breath (though, it should be said, that can be caused by a number of health issues).

What causes acute bronchitis?

“A very small number of cases are caused by bacteria,” Dr. Pennington says. But, usually, a common cold virus is the culprit. Acute bronchitis is most common during fall and winter, as that’s when respiratory viruses peak. Acute bronchitis can also be caused by breathing in things that irritate the lungs such as tobacco smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution, according to the American Lung Association.

Doctors typically diagnose bronchitis based on a physical exam at the doctor’s office, combined with the patient's clinical history. “Providers may order additional testing if they suspect you have the flu or pneumonia,” says Dr. Pennington.

As far as determining whether or not your bronchitis is bacterial or viral, you can't determine that by looking at your phlegm, says Dr. Pennington. "One of the common misconceptions is that yellow or green phlegm means that you have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics," she explains. "But this is not true and does not correlate with having a bacterial infection or responding to antibiotics"

Some people also have a heightened risk of having acute bronchitis, like people with compromised immune symptoms, chronic lung disease, infants, current smokers, the elderly, and young children. “Also, people who have had close contact with someone else who has a cold or acute bronchitis are at increased risk,” says Dr. Pennington.

How is acute bronchitis treated—and how is it prevented?

The good news? Since acute bronchitis is usually the result of a common cold virus, you probably don’t need to take antibiotics to make it go away. In fact, it usually goes away on its own within one to three weeks, according to Dr. Pennington. (But you might be prescribed antibiotics if your acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.)

As far as symptom management goes, patients “should focus on getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids,” says Dr. Pennington. “Cough relief or decongestant medications can help with symptom relief,” she adds.

Dr. Pennington says that, while acute symptoms last one to three weeks, that cough can, for some individuals, linger for six to eight weeks. (It's important to remember that, even if you're feeling healthy otherwise, that lingering cough can make workouts difficult to breath through for weeks after having been diagnosed with acute bronchitis.)

As far as prevention, you can follow some simple steps to minimize your chances of having acute bronchitis. Dr. Pennington says washing your hands often (for a full 20 seconds with soap and water!) or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can help you avoid acute bronchitis-causing germs. Additionally, keep unwashed hands away from your nose, eyes, and mouth; get enough sleep at night; eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; and try to avoid people you know are sick.

And if you are the one who's sick: “Stay home from work or school to prevent other people from getting sick,” says Dr. Pennington. (Remember, the elderly and young children are more at risk of getting acute bronchitis than the rest of us. Your meeting at work probably isn't worth putting them at risk, right?)

As for long-term damage, “data regarding long-term outcomes after acute bronchitis is limited,” Dr. Pennington admits. But after multiple rounds of acute bronchitis, some patients might develop mild asthma, she says. However, “it is not clear if those patients already had mild asthma, which put them at higher risk for acute bronchitis, or if recurrent acute bronchitis led to the development of asthma."

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