Most people with acute bronchitis recover after a few days or weeks. Viral infections, such as the cold or flu, are usually the cause of acute bronchitis. Occasionally, acute bronchitis can be caused by a bacterial infection.
Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing cough that lasts for several months and comes back two or more years in a row. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways stays constantly inflamed. This causes the lining to swell and produce more mucus, which can make it hard to breathe. Chronic bronchitis is often part of a serious condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Your risk for either type of bronchitis is higher if you smoke cigarettes or have asthma or allergies. Chronic bronchitis is most often caused by smoking cigarettes, but it can occur in non-smokers as well. Women who smoke may be more at risk than men. Those who are older, have been exposed to fumes or secondhand smoke, have a family history of lung disease, have a history of childhood respiratory diseases, or have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are also at higher risk of getting chronic bronchitis.
The most common symptom of bronchitis is coughing associated with mucus production. Other symptoms include wheezing or shortness of breath, chest pain, or a low fever. To diagnose bronchitis, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your medical history and symptoms. The doctor may also order a blood test to look for signs of infection or a chest X-ray to see if your lungs and bronchial tubes look normal and rule out pneumonia.
Usually, acute bronchitis goes away on its own, without treatment. Sometimes over-the-counter medicines that loosen mucus or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen can help manage acute bronchitis. Taking a couple of teaspoons of honey or using a humidifier may also reduce the symptoms and help with comfort. Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics only if they find that you have a bacterial infection, which is more common in young children. To prevent acute bronchitis from recurring, your doctor may recommend that you get a seasonal flu vaccine, quit smoking, and avoid being around secondhand smoke.
The goal of treatment for chronic bronchitis is to help you breathe better and control your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend healthy lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking; taking medicines to help clear your airways or to prevent symptoms from getting worse; or, in some cases, getting oxygen therapy to help you breathe better. Pulmonary rehabilitation can teach you breathing techniques such as pursed-lip breathing and help you prevent symptoms from worsening.