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Diseases A–Z


Acute bronchitis | Chronic bronchitis | Preventing bronchitis

Bronchitis means swelling in your air passages (bronchi). Bronchi are the air passages that connect your windpipe (trachea) with tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. The air sacs are where your body absorbs the oxygen you breathe in.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi. This inflammation means the walls of your bronchi are swollen and filled with extra sticky mucus. Airflow into and out of your lungs is partly blocked because of the swelling and extra mucus in your bronchi.

Graphic of an airway that's red and swollen from bronchitis and a normal airway
1. Airway that's red & swollen from bronchitis
2. Normal airway, no swelling

There are two kinds of bronchitis:

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis, swelling in your bronchi, is usually caused by viruses — the same viruses that give you the common cold. The viruses attack the insides of your airways and infect them. Your airways react by getting red and swollen, and by making extra mucus.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

If you have acute bronchitis, you probably feel the symptoms of a cold, plus:

  • you cough up extra mucus
  • wheezing in your chest — it feels harder to breathe
Treating acute bronchitis

Most of the time, acute bronchitis goes away on its own, as long as you take good care of yourself. Get lots of rest, drink plenty of water and try to cough up the mucus. If you smoke, cut down or stop when you have bronchitis — this will allow your lungs to recover much faster.

See your doctor if:
  • your symptoms last for more than one month
  • you have trouble breathing when you lie down
  • you cough up blood or a bad-tasting mucus (sticky fluid from your lungs)
  • you have swollen feet
  • you feel sick, weak and have a high fever
  • you have had acute bronchitis many times — this could signal that you have a chronic (long-term) problem in your lungs

If you get medical treatment, the doctor may prescribe inhaled corticosteroids, the kind of medicine people with asthma take to reduce the swelling in their airways. If the doctor finds that your bronchitis is caused by bacteria, they will prescribe antibiotics.

If you already have a chronic lung disease like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and you get acute bronchitis, follow the instructions in your written action plan. This may mean taking more of your medicines. Pay close attention to your symptoms and see your doctor or go to emergency if breathing is difficult.

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Chronic bronchitis
If you have chronic bronchitis:
  • the cells lining the inside of the bronchi are continuously red and swollen
  • the airways in your lungs have become narrow and partly clogged with mucus

With chronic bronchitis, the mucus cannot be cleared. Instead of helping to clean the lungs, the mucus blocks your airways. The mucus is thicker and more difficult to cough up. This means it's easier for bacteria to settle in your lower airways and become infected.

Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by cigarette smoke. It can also be caused by other things. The main symptoms of chronic bronchitis are:

  • a persistent cough (cough that won't go away)
  • extra mucus (phlegm) in the lungs

Chronic bronchitis is part of a breathing disease called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Read more about chroncic bronchitis in our COPD section.

Preventing bronchitis

The best way to prevent bronchitis it to stay away from smoke — don't smoke, and don't go near second-hand smoke. If you smoke, quit — it's not easy, but it's the best thing you can do to slow down the damage in your lungs.

You can prevent acute bronchitis (the kind that comes from a virus) by fighting germs — wash your hands properly and often.

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