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(Acute Bronchitis; Lower Respiratory Tract Infection)

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Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Air passes to the lungs through airways called bronchi. Bronchitis is the swelling of the bronchi. It can make breathing difficult.

Bronchi of Lungs

lungs and bronchioles
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There are different types of bronchitis such as:

  • Acute bronchitis—This is a sudden onset of symptoms. It only lasts a short time and lung function is fully recovered.
  • Chronic bronchitis —This is a serious, long-term condition. It causes blockage and damage of the lungs. It is often the result of many years of cigarette smoking.

This fact sheet focuses on acute bronchitis.


The swelling in the bronchi may be caused by:

  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Irritation from smoke
  • Breathing in certain irritants (usually in a work setting) such as:
    • Ammonia
    • Chlorine
    • Minerals
    • Vegetable dusts

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your risk of acute bronchitis include:

  • Having a cold or flu
  • Contact with a person with a respiratory viral or bacterial infection
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Asthma
  • Exposures to respiratory inhalants at work
  • Poorly functioning immune system


Symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:

  • Cough
  • Increased sputum production
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing

You may also have other cold or flu symptoms such as slight fever, sore throat, and nasal congestion.


Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Tests are rarely needed. The following may be recommended if the bronchitis is severe or the diagnosis is not clear:

  • Blood test
  • Chest x-rays —to check for other conditions such as pneumonia
  • Sputum cultures to check for the presence of unusual bacteria


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:

  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat pain and fever
    • Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children or teens with a current or recent viral infection. This is because of the risk of Reye's syndrome. Ask your doctor which other medicines are safe for your child.
  • Expectorants or cough suppressants
    • There are some concerns about the safety of over-the-counter cough and cold products in children. The FDA recommends that these products not be used in children less than 2 years old. The FDA also supports not using them in children less than 4 years old.
  • Albuterol to help open airways if there are signs of breathing difficulty
  • Herbs and supplementsPelargonium sidoides extract may help resolve symptoms in patients with acute bronchitis
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Cool mist humidifier—to ease breathing

Antibiotics will not be helpful if the infection is caused by a virus. Most of these infections are caused by viruses.

If you are diagnosed with bronchitis, follow your doctor's instructions .


To reduce your chance of getting bronchitis, follow these steps:

  • Avoid contact with people who have respiratory viral or bacterial infections.
  • Stop smoking or never start.
  • Avoid passive smoke.
  • Avoid exposure to irritants in the air.

American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor


American Lung Association



The Canadian Lung Association


The College of Family Physicians of Canada



Acute bronchitis. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/acute-bronchitis.html. Updated February 2010. Accessed March 29, 2013.

Acute bronchitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated February 8, 2013. Accessed March 29, 2013.

Know when antibiotics work: Bronchitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/URI/bronchitis.html. Updated May 1, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2013.

Smith S, Fahey T, et al. Antibiotics for acute bronchitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;CD000245.

Nonprescription cough and cold medicine use in children. Medwatch: 2007 Safety Alerts for Drugs, Biologics, Medical Devices, and Dietary Supplements. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm152691.htm. Accessed: March 29, 2013.

1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Timmer A, Gunther J, Rucker G, Motschall E, Antes G, Kern WV. Pelargonium sidoides extract for acute respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;(3):CD006323.

Last reviewed June 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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