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Learn About Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is a form of lower respiratory tract inflammation affecting the air tubes (bronchi) of the lungs.

Key Facts

  • Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly.
  • It means that the tubes that carry air to your lungs are inflamed.
  • It usually gets better on its own without the need for antibiotics.
  • The infection usually lasts for 3-10 days; but the cough can continue for several weeks.
  • It is different from chronic bronchitis, a chronic disease for which there is no cure.

What Is Acute Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is the sudden development of inflammation in bronchial tubes—the major airways into your lungs. It usually happens because of a virus or breathing in things that irritate the lungs such as tobacco smoke, fumes, dust and air pollution. Bacteria sometimes cause acute bronchitis.

How Acute Bronchitis Affects Your Body

In acute bronchitis, cells that line the bronchi become infected. The infection usually starts in the nose or throat and travels to the bronchial tubes. When the body tries to fight the infection, it causes the bronchial tubes to swell. This causes you to cough. Sometimes it is a dry cough, but often you will cough up mucus (sputum). The inflammation also causes less air to be able to move through the bronchial tubes, which can cause wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Eventually, the immune system fights off the infection. Acute bronchitis usually lasts for 3-10 days. However, your cough and mucus (sputum) production can last for several weeks after the infection has cleared.

How Serious Is Acute Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is temporary and usually does not cause any permanent breathing difficulties. It is possible for people with weakened immune systems or other major health problems to develop severe problems such as pneumonia or respiratory failure. In general, those who develop major problems from acute bronchitis are:

  • The elderly
  • Young children
  • People with other major health conditions including cancer or diabetes
  • People who have not been immunized for the flu, pneumonia and whooping cough.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Page Last Updated: July 11, 2019

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