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.
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 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.