Frequently Asked Questions

Acute Bronchitis

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What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is swelling and irritation in the air passages of your lungs. This irritation may cause you to cough or have other breathing problems. Acute bronchitis often starts because of another viral illness, such as a cold or the flu. The illness spreads from your nose and throat to your windpipe and airways. Bronchitis is often called a chest cold. Acute bronchitis lasts about 2 weeks and is usually not a serious illness.

What causes acute bronchitis?

  • Infection: Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a type of germ called a virus. It may also be caused by other germs, such as bacteria, yeast, or a fungus.

  • Polluted air: Acute bronchitis can be caused when you breathe chemical fumes, dust, or pollution. Smoke may also cause bronchitis. This type of bronchitis is sometimes called occupational or environmental bronchitis.

  • Allergies: You may get bronchitis if you are allergic to something in the air that you breathe, such as pollen.

What increases my risk for acute bronchitis?

Ask your healthcare provider for more information about these and other risk factors for acute bronchitis:

  • Lung problems: You may be more likely to get bronchitis if you have lung disease, such as asthma or emphysema.

  • Cigarette smoke: If you smoke, you are at higher risk of acute bronchitis.

What are the signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis?

  • You have a constant cough. The cough may last up to a month. Your cough may be dry, or you may cough up mucus. Mucus may be green, yellow, white, or have streaks of blood in it. You may have chest pain when you cough or take a deep breath.

  • You are more tired than usual, and your body aches.

  • You have a fever and chills.

  • You have a sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose.

  • You are short of breath, and you wheeze when you breathe.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Healthcare providers will ask about your signs and symptoms. Tell healthcare providers about other medical conditions you have. You may need the following:

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Healthcare providers may use the x-ray to look for signs of infection, such as pneumonia. Chest x-rays may also show fluid around your heart and lungs.

How is acute bronchitis treated?

  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: Ibuprofen or acetaminophen are medicines that help lower your fever. They are available without a doctor's order. Ask your healthcare provider which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. These medicines can cause stomach bleeding if not taken correctly. Ibuprofen can cause kidney damage. Do not take ibuprofen if you have kidney disease, an ulcer, or allergies to aspirin. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Do not drink alcohol if you take acetaminophen.

  • Cough medicine: This medicine helps loosen mucus in your lungs and make it easier to cough up. This can help you breathe easier.

  • Cough suppressant: This medicine decreases your urge to cough. If your cough produces mucus, do not take a cough suppressant unless your healthcare provider tells you to. Your healthcare provider may suggest that you take a cough suppressant at night so you can rest.

  • Inhalers: Your healthcare provider may give you one or more inhalers to help you breathe easier and cough less. An inhaler gives your medicine in a mist form so that you can breathe it into your lungs. Ask your healthcare provider to show you how to use your inhaler correctly.

  • Steroid medicine: Steroid medicine helps open your air passages so you can breathe easier.

  • Antiviral medicine: Antiviral medicine may be given to fight an infection caused by a virus.

  • Antibiotics: Rarely, antibiotics may be given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

How can I care for myself when I have acute bronchitis?

  • Avoid alcohol: Alcohol dulls your urge to cough and sneeze. When you have bronchitis, you need to be able to cough and sneeze to clear your air passages. Alcohol also causes your body to lose fluid. This can make the mucus in your lungs thicker and harder to cough up.

  • Avoid irritants in the air: Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. Avoid chemicals, fumes, and dust. Wear a face mask if you must work around dust or fumes. Stay inside on days when air pollution levels are high. If you have allergies, stay inside when pollen counts are high. Avoid aerosol products . This includes spray-on deodorant, bug spray, and hair spray.

  • Drink more liquids: Most people should drink at least 8 eight-ounce cups of water a day. You may need to drink more liquids when you have acute bronchitis. Liquids help keep your air passages moist and help you cough up mucus.

  • Get more rest: You may feel like resting more. Slowly start to do more each day. Rest when you feel it is needed.

  • Eat healthy foods: Eat a variety healthy foods every day. Your diet should include fruits, vegetables, breads, and protein (such as chicken, fish, and beans). Dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and ice cream) can sometimes increase the amount of mucus your body makes. Ask your healthcare provider if you should eat fewer dairy products.

  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer: Use a cool mist humidifier or a vaporizer to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe and help decrease your cough.

How can I decrease my risk of acute bronchitis?

  • Get the vaccinations you need: Ask your healthcare provider if you should get vaccinated against the flu or pneumonia.

  • Avoid the spread of germs: You can decrease your risk of acute bronchitis and other illnesses by doing the following:

    • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing hand lotion or gel with you. You can use the lotion or gel to clean your hands when there is no water available.

    • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.

    • Always cover your mouth when you cough to prevent the spread of germs. It is best to cough into a tissue or your shirt sleeve, rather than into your hand. Ask those around you cover their mouths when they cough.

    • Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.

What are the risks of acute bronchitis?

Your bronchitis may turn into a serious infection, such as pneumonia. The chance your bronchitis will become a serious illness is increased if you have other health problems.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your skin becomes itchy or you have a rash after you take your medicine.

  • Your breathing problems do not go away or get worse.

  • Your cough does not get better with treatment.

  • You cough up blood.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek immediate care or call 911 if:

  • You faint.

  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.

  • You feel like you are not getting enough air when you breathe.

  • You have swelling of your lips, tongue, or throat that makes it hard to breathe or swallow.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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