Acute bronchitis

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

Key points

  1. Bronchitis is swelling and inflammation inside the main airways of your lungs (bronchi) causing them to produce more mucous.
  2. Acute bronchitis can affect people of all ages and is more common in winter.
  3. The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a virus.
  4. The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a chesty cough, with green or yellow mucous. You may also have symptoms of a cold.
  5. Normally you’ll start to feel better after a few days, but the cough may last for a few weeks longer.
  6. 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:

  • getting adequate rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids, mainly water, to help prevent dehydration
  • using an extra pillow to help you sit up 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 medication for bronchitis?

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

Pain relievers

Medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will help to ease your muscle aches and headache. Ibuprofen may not be suitable if you have some medical conditions. Check with your pharmacist if ibuprofen is suitable for you.    

Cough medicines

You might want to take cough medicines but there is little evidence that they work. As an alternative, try making a drink of honey, lemon and warm water, which can help soothe a sore throat and ease your cough.

Read more about cough and cold medicines in adults and cough and cold medicines in children.

Inhalers

If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler such as salbutamol, to open your airways if you are wheezing.

Do I need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are not usually needed to treat bronchitis because bronchitis is mostly caused by viruses (a viral infection). Antibiotics only work against bacteria (a bacterial infection) but not viruses. Using antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance. This is when overuse of antibiotics encourages the growth of bacteria that can’t be controlled easily with drugs. That makes you more at risk of antibiotic-resistant infections in the future and makes antibiotics less effective for everyone.

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) MOH, NZ
Bronchitis NHS Choices (UK)

References

  1. Respiratory tract infections (self-limiting) – reducing antibiotic prescribing BPAC, November 2015 
  2. Acute cough illness (acute bronchitis) CDC guidelines
  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.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.