Acute bronchitis

Also known as bronchitis, chest infection or chest cold

Acute bronchitis is swelling and inflammation inside the main airways of your lungs (bronchi), causing them to produce more mucous. Your body tries to get rid of the extra mucous by coughing.

There are 2 types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.
This page covers acute bronchitis (chest infection) in adults. For information on chronic bronchitis (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD) see COPD. For information on chest infection in babies and children under 2 years of age see bronchiolitis.

Key points about bronchitis

  1. Acute bronchitis can affect people of all ages and is more common in winter.
  2. The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a virus.
  3. The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a chesty cough, with green or yellow mucous. You may also have symptoms of a cold.
  4. Normally you’ll start to feel better after a few days, but the cough may last for a few weeks longer.
  5. See your doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you notice signs of a more serious chest infection, such as shortness of breath and high fever, or if you feel very unwell.

What causes acute bronchitis?

The main cause of acute bronchitis is a virus. This is often the same virus that causes a common cold, which is why bronchitis often occurs after a cold. Acute bronchitis is more common in winter. 

Acute bronchitis can affect people of all ages. For information on chest infection in babies under 6 months of age see bronchiolitis.

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis? 

The main symptom is a chesty cough, with green or yellow mucous. You may also get cold symptoms, such as:

  • mild fever
  • sore throat
  • aches and pains
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • tiredness.

You’ll usually start to feel better after a few days, but the cough may remain for a few weeks.

What are the signs a chest infection is more serious?

If you or a family member is short of breath, coughing up blood, has a high fever or feels very unwell you need to see your doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 straight away. These can be symptoms of pneumonia or other serious conditions.

How can I care for myself with acute bronchitis?

You don’t usually need to see your doctor if you have acute bronchitis as your body will fight the virus and get better by itself.

You can help yourself feel better by:

  • resting for a few days
  • drinking plenty of fluids, mainly water, to help prevent dehydration
  • using an extra pillow to elevate your head as you sleep
  • quitting if you smoke
  • using your inhaler if you have asthma or another chronic lung condition.

See your doctor if your cough lasts for more than 3 weeks, or you have a high fever or pain when coughing.

Do I need medicine for bronchitis? 

Usually, the symptoms of acute bronchitis go away by themselves after a few days and don't require medication. However, the following medicines may help to ease your symptoms:

Pain relievers

Medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will help to ease your muscle aches and pains and headache, and reduce fever. 

Cough medicines

You might want to take cough medicines but there is little evidence that they work. If you do, choose an expectorant medication as this is designed to help clear mucous from your lungs. 

Avoid cough medicines that reduce your urge to cough (suppressants). These may help if you have an irritating, dry cough, especially at night, but they should not be used if your cough is chesty. 

As an alternative, try making a drink of honey, lemon and hot water, which can help soothe a sore throat and ease your cough.

Read more about cough and cold medicines in adults.

Cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under 6 years old.

For children aged 6–12 years old, only use cough and cold medicines that say on the label they can be used for that age group. Read more about cough and cold medicines in children.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not often used to treat acute bronchitis because they have no effect on viruses, which are usually the cause of bronchitis.

However, if your doctor thinks you also have a bacterial infection in your airways, you may need to take antibiotics.

Inhalers

If you are wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways, such as ventolin, the same medicine you may have heard of for asthma treatment.

How can I prevent getting bronchitis?

Bronchitis can’t always be prevented but some things might help:

Learn more

The following links provide further information on bronchitis. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

What is acute bronchitis? Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ
Chest infections (bronchitis) Ministry of Health, NZ
Bronchitis NHS, UK

References

  1. Respiratory tract infections (self-limiting) – reducing antibiotic prescribing BPAC, NZ, 2015 
  2. Acute cough illness (acute bronchitis) Centers for Disease Control, US
  3. Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, et al. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-6.

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthgeriatrics and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB Last reviewed: 04 Nov 2020