Acute bronchitis is inflammation (irritation) of the large airways (or bronchial tubes) in the lungs. Acute means that the bronchitis starts suddenly. This common condition is sometimes called a chest cold.
Coughing results from this inflammation and irritation of the lining of these large airways. Also, glands in the airways produce too much mucus (slimy, thick fluid that moistens and protects many passages in the body). This inflammation and mucus cause airways to narrow, resulting in noisy breathing.
Complete recovery can occur within 10 to 14 days, but the cough may last longer. Smokers have a slower recovery time. Acute bronchitis can sometimes lead to the more serious pneumonia. Repeated attacks of acute bronchitis may mean the presence of long-standing (chronic) bronchitis, asthma, or another lung disorder.
The usual cause is a viral infection, most likely after cold or flu symptoms. Other causes include bacteria and irritation of the large airways by chemicals, fumes, dust, or pollutants.
Smokers and people with lung problems, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, or cystic fibrosis, are more likely to get acute bronchitis.
Symptoms include those of the common cold, such as runny nose and sore throat, fever, headache, aches and pains, cough with mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest pain when breathing deeply or coughing.
The health care provider will ask about symptoms, do a physical examination, and listen to the lungs with a stethoscope.
For long-term or severe symptoms, the health care provider may order a chest x-ray to exclude more serious infections such as pneumonia. Blood tests aren’t normally needed.
Antipyretic medicines reduce body temperature and analgesic drugs ease chest discomfort and body aches. These drugs include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Cough syrups may or may not work, and some make people drowsy.
Decongestants can help with cold symptoms.
Bronchodilators, usually given by inhaler, open the airways and help with breathing.
People with acute bronchitis don’t usually need antibiotics because the cause is a virus and antibiotics treat bacterial infections. However, if the health care provider suspects bacteria as the cause, antibiotics may be given.
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