If you have a constant cough that brings up mucus—especially after a cold—you most likely have bronchitis. Find out how to get relief and when to see a doctor.
What is bronchitis?
A cough with mucus is a sign of bronchitis. During the doctor's exam, you might have abnormal breath sounds. A chest X-ray, labs, and cultures (blood, respiratory, and viral) may be needed too. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai
Bronchitis is a viral infection that causes swelling (inflammation) of the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes bring air to the lungs.
Bronchitis causes a cough. You may also have a mild fever, wheezing, some difficulty breathing, and chest tightness.
Most common bronchitis symptoms
The most common symptom is a cough. It often produces mucus.
You may also have a mild fever, trouble breathing, chest pressure, and wheezing. Symptoms may be similar to a bacterial infection, pneumonia, allergies, or chemical exposure.
- Cough, usually with mucus
- Difficulty breathing
- Mild fever
- Chest discomfort—tightness or pressure
- Body aches
Acute bronchitis usually develops after a cold. You should feel better in 1 to 2 weeks.
Another type of bronchitis is chronic. It is from a recurring irritation, usually smoking (and vaping). Or from having acute bronchitis repeatedly.
In both cases, the bronchial tubes swell, become narrower, and mucus builds up.
Do you need antibiotics for bronchitis?
Since it's almost always a virus, the best way to treat is by taking care of the symptoms. (While you may expect your doctor to prescribe antibiotics, they are only for a bacterial infection.)
If wheezing is an issue, your doctor may decide to prescribe an inhaler for wheezing.
- Have warm fluids like tea, soup, etc.
- Set up a humidifier in the bedroom or try steam from a hot shower.
- Drink liquids often. Children should have frequent, small amounts.
- Try cough lozenges. Do not give to children or the elderly because of choking risk.
- Get plenty of rest.
Risk factors for bronchitis
Many people who smoke cigarettes or are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke get bronchitis. Other factors that put you at a higher risk include underlying medical issues, especially asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and young children or the elderly.
How serious is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is not usually dangerous. Unless you have a risk factor, call your doctor or go to urgent care.
For serious breathing problems, wheezing, racing heart, dizziness, vomiting, or other similar symptoms, go to the ER.
Call 911 immediately for symptoms that seem life-threatening, like chest pain or skin that looks bluish (cyanosis). Cyanosis is a sign of low oxygen.
What is the best medicine for bronchitis?
Do not try any new medications or treatments without checking with your doctor.
- If you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen, use it for fever and pain as needed. Check with your pediatrician before giving it to children. And never give aspirin to kids. (There is a risk for Reye's Syndrome.)
- Try a cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) with or without guaifenesin (loosens mucus). But do not give to children.
- Your doctor may prescribe an inhaler (bronchodilator) for wheezing. And possibly a steroid like prednisone. Though prednisone has side effects.
Treatment is just the management of symptoms. This can be frustrating since there is no great treatment for cough—and a cough is usually the most frustrating symptom. It can take a while to fully recover and feel back to normal. And a chronic nagging cough is not unusual. —Dr. Manuelpillai
Bronchitis usually improves within a few weeks. Though a mild cough and some chest discomfort (tightness or shortness of breath) may last a few months.
Smokers can take even longer to recover. And sometimes the cough may not completely go away.
Washing hands often with soap and water is the best way to avoid getting a viral infection like bronchitis. Also avoiding cigarette smoke.
Always stay up-to-date on immunizations. This includes your annual flu shot and all recommended vaccines for children. And for the elderly, the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine (Pneumovax).
The most common symptom of bronchitis is a productive cough (cough with mucus). During the exam, you might have abnormal breath sounds. A chest X-ray, labs, and cultures (blood, respiratory, and viral) may be needed too.