An Overview of the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Bronchitis

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Bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes, the tubes that carry air to your lungs, become inflamed and produce mucus. A cough that produces mucus is a primary symptom. Symptoms may also include wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe), chest pain or discomfort, a low fever, and shortness of breath. There are two main types of bronchitis: acute (short-term) and chronic (ongoing). Both types cause constricted airways and coughing, which make it difficult to breathe and get adequate oxygen.

Acute Bronchitis

Bacterial infections, viruses that cause colds and the flu, and other factors that irritate the lungs can cause acute bronchitis. Viruses and bacteria are spread through the air when people cough and through physical contact (for example, on hands that have not been washed). Acute bronchitis usually develops a few days after a cold and lasts for three to 10 days, but the cough that occurs may linger for several weeks after the infection is gone.

Several factors increase the risk for acute bronchitis, including tobacco smoke (even secondhand smoke), air pollution, dust and fumes. Avoiding these lung irritants as much as possible can help lower your risk.

If you think you have acute bronchitis, see your doctor. He or she will want to rule out other more serious health conditions and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment, which could include bronchodilator, cough suppressant or antibiotic medication.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing, serious condition that occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes is constantly irritated and inflamed. Bronchitis is considered “chronic” if you have a cough with mucus on most days for at least 3 months a year and 2 years in a row (without another apparent cause). Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis.

Viruses or bacteria can easily infect the irritated bronchial tubes. When this happens, the condition worsens and lasts longer. As a result, people who have chronic bronchitis usually have periods called flare-ups when symptoms get much worse than usual.

Chronic bronchitis is a serious, long-term medical condition. Early diagnosis and treatment, combined with quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, can help people maintain a high quality of life with this condition. Left untreated, chronic bronchitis can develop into a chronic lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A comprehensive treatment plan can make it easier to breathe and minimize discomfort. The chance of complete recovery is low for people who have severe chronic bronchitis.


The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) provides global leadership for a research, training and education program to promote the prevention and treatment of heart, lung and blood diseases.

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4 Comments

Thank you for this information about chronic bronchitis. It gave me a better understanding of my mother's condition. My mother has recently needed to have 4 breathing treatments per day. She is having more difficulty swallowing and needs to be reminded to hold the food in her mouth and not to swallow until she tips her head down. The Speech Therapist was very helpful in showing both of us the necessity of doing the above and it has been a big help.

I appreciate your site in that it has been very helpful these past two years--both in the information you give as well as the opportunity to read and share with other caregivers.
I've had my symptoms for a week starting with two days of no voice but otherwise feeling well. Then I developed chest congestion with coughing and thick phlem and feeling generally punk. Doctor diagnosed me with bronchitis and gave me a c-pac. I'm wondering where I picked this up and hoping it will be gone in a few days.
After the diagnosis of acute bronchitis, you should start the treatment which will last for 2 to 3 weeks depending on the nature of the bronchitis. As acute bronchitis is not caused by bacteria, antibiotics do not have any effect on the viruses and taking antibiotics during this period may just strengthen bacteria needlessly. However in only rare conditions is acute bronchitis caused by bacteria and in only this case will your doctor prescribe you some antibiotics. Acute bronchitis continues as long as the symptoms lasts. To relieve the symptoms doctors recommend drinking plenty of fluids and rest and to avoid inhaling any kind of lung irritants. A mask is effective if you live or work in an industrial area where smoke is always in the air. If the symptoms persist, your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever to lessen body pain or an expectorant to help the mucus in the bronchial tubes from being detached, so it can more easily be coughed up. Some other medications that can relieve bronchitis are Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen and cough syrups which are protussives and antitussives. If the cough is creating discomfort antitussives are prescribed which prevent or control coughs to clear and avoid strain on the bronchial tubes and includes antihistamines, hydrocodone and codeine. Protussives focus on making the cough more effective for proper and through removal of mucus. Protussives which are effective include terbutaline, amiloride and hypertonic saline aerosols. According to doctors, the usage of bronchodilators is also suitable in instances of complicated cases of acute bronchitis. Although experts opinions are divided when it comes to oral or inhaled beta agonists, it has been found that patients who used bronchodilators like albuterol metered-dose inhaler showed reduced symptoms of bronchitis. If bronchitis is problematic and slows you down every few months it may be better to get a yearly vaccination shot against influenza virus or bacterial pneumonia. One dose of pneumonia vaccine, PPSV23, will help protect you from pneumonia until the age of 65. A booster may be need if you have other medical problems.