What is bronchitis?

At the turn of a new season it’s not uncommon for the body’s immune system to weaken, causing a dreaded cold or flu (influenza).

Generally, a cold or flu heals within a few weeks. With a weakened immune system, sometimes the body doesn’t return to normal and a respiratory infection develops.

Bronchitis is a lower respiratory tract condition that occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes infected. A build-up of mucus (sputum), which is often discoloured, and a persistent cough then develop.

Healthy versus infected and swollen bronchial tubes.

What to expect

How does bronchitis develop?

A viral condition, bronchitis generally develops from the same organism that causes colds and flu. Sometimes bronchitis can develop as a result of a bacterial infection.

As the body naturally fights off germs, bronchitis develops when the bronchial tubes become inflamed, swell up, and begin to produce a build-up of mucus. This then results in narrow openings for air to travel to and from the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe.

Types of Bronchitis

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis: This is the most common variation of bronchitis with symptoms lasting for several days, but coughing may last for a few weeks, even after the patient has been treated for acute bronchitis.
  • Chronic bronchitis: A more serious condition whereby inflammation of the bronchial tube lining is constantly irritated. This type repeatedly comes back or doesn’t tend to clear up at all. Usually experienced by smokers, this bronchitis type can develop from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a long-term lung disease that occurs when air sacs in the lungs thin out. COPD may also be called Emphysema. 

Factors to consider

Signs and symptoms you may experience include:

  • Trouble breathing: Numerous breathing problems can occur as a result of congestion in the chest (where the chest feels clogged up or heavy), a persistent cough with white, yellowish or greenish mucus, shortness of breath, or a wheezing sound when taking a breath.
  • Body aches associated with general cold and flu symptoms.
  • Fever
  • Feeling fatigued
  • A runny or congested nose
  • Sore throat
  • A cough can persist even after other flu-like symptoms begin to clear up. A cough can last for several more weeks while the bronchial tubes heal and the swelling subsides. 

It is a good idea to seek assistance from your doctor should the cough persist for longer as this could potentially be as a result of something else not functioning as it should in the body.

You may be more easily susceptible to bronchitis if:

  • You have a weak immune system. Babies and young children, as well as older adults and those who experience other ongoing diseases or conditions are more prone to developing bronchitis.
  • You already have a cold or the flu.
  • You smoke or live with a smoker.
  • You experience frequent heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause stomach acid to leak back up into the bronchial tubes.
  • You work with certain substances on the job such as chemical fumes or dust that can trouble your lungs.

How is bronchitis spread?

As acute bronchitis is a viral health problem, it can develop in the same way as a cold or flu virus. Once a virus is airborne or is present on surfaces it is easy to contract. A virus is easily spread by breathing it in if in close range to a person who is ill and contagious, or passing it from your hands to your mouth, nose or eyes.

Treatment Procedures

How is bronchitis diagnosed?

At your consultation, your doctor will assess whether you have bronchitis or not by performing a physical exam. He or she will listen to your lungs, requesting that you breathe in and out, to see whether anything sounds unusual. This is usually where your doctor can pick up wheezing and other unusual breathing sounds.

Your doctor will also discuss your overall symptoms with you and generally ask specific questions about the kind of cough you are experiencing.

Typical questions may include:

  • Have you recently had a cold or the flu?
  • How long ago did your overall symptoms begin?
  • How long have you had the cough?
  • Have you noted any mucus coming up when you cough?
  • What colour is the mucus?
  • Have your symptoms been occasional or persistent?
  • Are you unable to function normally or do your symptoms disturb your sleep?
  • Are you a smoker? For how long have you smoked?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with and treated for pneumonia?
  • Have you had a vaccination for pneumonia? (See more on the pneumococcalpolysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) If so, when?
  • Are you aware of any other medical conditions you may have?
  • Are you currently taking any other medications or supplements? Do you take them regularly?
  • Are you exposed to any lung irritants at your place of work?

Your doctor may also do the following during your consultation:

  • Assess oxygen levels in your blood. Your doctor will use a sensor which is placed on your finger or toe.
  • Do a pulmonary function test. Your doctor will ask you to breathe into a spirometer device to test your lung function. This test measures how much air your lungs can hold. It also measures how promptly you can get air out of your lungs. This will likely be done if more serious respiratory conditions such as emphysema or asthma are suspected.
  • Request a chest X-ray. This test will be used to assess whether you have pneumonia or another illness which may be the root cause of your cough.
  • Request blood tests.  This is to assess oxygen levels in the blood or build-up of carbon dioxide (in severe cases, where the airway is so narrow that not enough carbon dioxide is expelled from the airways). A full blood count test can also give an indication if it is more likely that the cause is due to an infection or an allergic reaction (by means of the eosinophilia count in the blood).
  • Do a sputum test (testing the mucus). This is done to potentially rule out any other diseases or conditions caused by bacteria. For example, Pertussis or ‘whooping cough’ can lead to violent coughing and difficulty breathing. Sputum can also be tested for signs of possible allergies

Female doctor examining chest X-ray.

Treating Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis tends to clear up within a two-week period. Antibiotics will usually be prescribed by your doctor if the cause is determined as a bacterial infection.

If you have other conditions such as asthma or allergies, or you experience wheezing, your doctor may also recommend an inhaler (bronchodilator) to help open up the airways and enable you to breathe a little easier as you recover. Other medications may also be prescribed to help decrease inflammation and heal narrowed passages in the lungs.

It’s not pleasant to experience, however bringing up mucus is a good thing as it is the body’s way of clearing out your lungs and air passages. A doctor may not suggest an expectorant cough medicine for this reason, unless you are unable to sleep at night because of your persistent cough. In this instance, a suppressant may help you to rest / sleep. It is best to avoid cough medicine for children under 4 years of age, unless advised by your doctor.

If your doctor diagnoses chronic bronchitis, pulmonary rehabilitation may be recommended. This is a breathing exercise programme whereby a respiratory therapist teaches you techniques to improve your breathing, as well as advises ways to increase your ability to exercise (which is something most people with COPD and chronic bronchitis struggle with), and healthier nutrition options.

Paediatric treatment where chronic bronchitis is diagnosed includes rest, use of antipyretics (to help reduce fever), sufficient hydration and avoidance of smoke and other aggravating fumes or chemicals. Analgesics (painkillers) and antipyretics help to target the symptoms of paediatric bronchitis. Bronchodilators administered by means of an inhaler and spacer may also be of benefit to children.

To alleviate your symptoms your doctor will also advise you to:

  • Drink at least 8 – 12 glasses of water a day. Water helps to thin out the mucus build-up, and also makes it easier for you to cough up and get rid of.
  • Rest.
  • Take a course of over-the-counter pain relievers. Aspirin and Ibuprofen may be recommended to help alleviate any pain and fever that you are experiencing. Appropriate pain and fever medications for children will be prescribed depending on their age and condition.
  • Use a warm mist humidifier to assist with loosening up mucus.

Young woman using a warm mist humidifier.


Is bronchitis contagious?

As the cause of acute bronchitis is bacterial, often brought on by colds and flu, it can be contagious. Depending on the type of virus you have, you are likely to only be contagious for a period of a few days to a week. A good rule of thumb is that you are likely contagious while you are experiencing other cold and flu symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis tends to develop from irritants such as dust, chemicals or smoke which are not normally contagious. As a result, chronic bronchitis isn’t a contagious condition, but is a serious health problem that does require a doctor’s care.

How long does bronchitis last?

Acute bronchitis usually takes between 1 to 3 weeks to clear completely. Chronic bronchitis can persist for a few months or longer, and tends to recur year after year.

Is it bronchitis or pneumonia?

It is rare, but bronchitis can develop into pneumonia. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Pneumonia occurs where there is an infection in the lungs. Tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli, become infected and swollen.

Pneumonia can be mild, but sometimes more severe depending on the cause of it, especially for the very young, those who are 65 and older, as well as those who generally have weaker immune systems.

Common symptoms for pneumonia include a cough (you may also bring up a yellow, green or even bloody mucus), fever, bodily shaking and chills, shortness of breath, a sharp chest pain that’s worse when coughing or breathing, confusion (especially in adults 65 years of age and older), fatigue, headaches, heavy sweating or damp and clammy skin, nausea and vomiting.

When should I call my doctor?

It is necessary to seek medical assistance if:

  • You bring up blood or mucus that thickens or darkens when you cough.
  • You notice a foul-tasting fluid in your mouth.
  • Your cough keeps you awake at night.
  • You experience a persistent cough for 1 to 3 weeks.
  • Your cough has a ‘barking’ sound and you find it difficult to speak due to wheezing or shortness of breath.
  • You experience any sudden or unexplained weight loss.
  • You experience a high fever of around [celcius:38].
  • You are 65 years of age or older and have a persistent cough.

Can bronchitis be prevented?

Your chances of getting bronchitis can be lowered or prevented in some of the following instances:

  • If you take measures to avoid inhaling cigarette smoke, where possible.
  • Get a flu vaccine before the winter season when colds and flu are most common.
  • Get a pneumonia vaccine, especially if you are 60 years of age or older.
  • Maintain good hygiene and wash your hands regularly.
  • Wear a mask when around fumes or chemicals which can irritate the lungs. If possible, ensure that the area where these are present is well ventilated. If ventilation is poor, a respirator, which fits over your nose and mouth can help to clean the air before it reaches your lungs.
  • In the home, refrain from using spray chemicals such as paint, hair spray, household cleaners and bug sprays. If you have to use any spray chemicals, ensure that windows are open or that you use the spray in well-ventilated areas (an open space). Wearing a mask while spraying will also help to protect your lungs.
  • If dust, pollen or other allergy triggers bring on bronchitis symptoms, you can wear a mask, as well as consult an allergist. An allergist will assist with shots or medications which can prevent allergic reactions to the specific triggers you are most affected by.

Disclaimer - is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or illness or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.