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What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is when the lining of the large breathing tubes gets inflamed (swollen and red). These airways, called the bronchial tubes, connect the windpipe to the lungs. Their delicate lining makes mucus, and covers and protects the organs and tissues involved in breathing.

Bronchitis (brong-KYE-tis) can:

  • Make it hard for air to pass in and out of the lungs.
  • Irritate the tissues of the bronchial tube lining. Then, it causes them to make too much mucus.

The most common symptom of bronchitis is a lasting cough.

What Are the Types of Bronchitis?

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic:

Acute bronchitis comes on quickly and can cause severe symptoms. But it lasts no more than a few weeks. Viruses cause most cases of bronchitis. Many different viruses can infect the respiratory tract and attack the bronchial tubes. Infection by some bacteria can also cause acute bronchitis. Most people have acute bronchitis at some point in their lives.

Chronic bronchitis is rare in children. It can be mild to severe and lasts longer (from several months to years). The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking. The bronchial tubes stay inflamed and irritated, and make lots of mucus over time. People who have chronic bronchitis have a higher risk of bacterial infections of the airway and lungs, like pneumonia.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis often starts with a dry, annoying cough triggered by the inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes.

Other symptoms may include:

  • coughing that brings up thick white, yellow, or greenish mucus
  • feeling short of breath
  • soreness or a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • wheezing (a whistling or hissing sound with breathing)
  • headache
  • generally feeling ill
  • fever
  • chills

For people with chronic bronchitis:

  • It can take longer than usual to recover from colds and other common respiratory illnesses.
  • Wheezing, feeling short of breath, and coughing can happen every day.
  • Breathing can get harder and harder.

What Causes Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. It may happen along with or after a cold or other respiratory infection. Viruses can spread:

  • when someone with bronchitis coughs and sends infected droplets into the air
  • when someone touches their mouth, eyes, or nose after contact with respiratory fluids from an infected person

Things that put people at risk for chronic bronchitis include:

  • smoking, even for a short time
  • being around tobacco smoke
  • exposure to chemical fumes and other air pollutants for long periods

How Is Bronchitis Diagnosed?

When doctors suspect bronchitis, they will do an exam and listen to a child’s chest with a stethoscope to check for wheezing and congestion.

No tests are needed to diagnose bronchitis. But the doctor may order a chest X-ray to rule out a condition like pneumonia. Sometimes doctors do a breathing test (called spirometry) to check for asthma. Some kids who seem to get bronchitis a lot — with coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath — may have asthma instead.

How Is Bronchitis Treated?

Doctors won’t prescribe an antibiotic for bronchitis caused by a virus. Antibiotics work only against bacteria, not viruses.

Home care helps most kids with bronchitis feel better. The doctor will recommend that kids and teens:

  • drink lots of liquids
  • get plenty of rest

For some older kids or teens, doctors might say it’s OK to give an over-the-counter or prescription cough medicine to ease coughing. They also sometimes prescribe a bronchodilator (brong-ko-DY-lay-ter) or other medicines that treat asthma. These help relax and open the bronchial tubes and clear mucus so it’s easier to breathe. Kids usually get these medicines through inhalers or nebulizer machines.

A child or teen with chronic bronchitis should avoid being near whatever irritates their bronchial tubes. For people who smoke, that means quitting. Tobacco smoke causes more than 80% of all cases of chronic bronchitis. Smokers also take longer to recover from acute bronchitis and other respiratory infections.

Can Bronchitis Be Prevented?

Washing hands well and often can help prevent the spread of many of the germs that cause bronchitis, especially during cold and flu season.

Encourage anyone in your family who smokes to quit. Protect kids — with or without bronchitis — from secondhand smoke. It can put them at risk for viral infections and increased congestion in their airways.