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What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is inflammation and irritation of the airways (bronchial tubes) of the lungs. The tubes swell and result in symptoms such as a persistent cough that often produces mucus (sputum), fever, mild wheezing, trouble breathing and chest pain.

Bronchitis is usually caused by infection from a virus (less commonly with bacteria or a fungus) like those that cause colds. Antibiotics usually do not help and they may be harmful.

It can also develop after exposure to chemicals or air pollution, including tobacco smoke.

Types of bronchitis

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis develops suddenly. It generally lasts less than 2 to 3 weeks. Most healthy people who develop bronchitis get better without any complications. But it can be more serious in older adults and children and in people who have other health problems such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Complications can include pneumonia and repeated episodes of severe bronchitis.
  • Chronic bronchitis recurs and becomes long-term (chronic), especially in people who smoke. A cough that produces too much sputum and is present most days during a 3-month period for at least 2 years in a row suggests chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD and means that you have a cough with mucus most days of the month for 3 months of the year and for at least 2 years in a row.

Bronchitis: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • You cough up dark brown or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • You have a new or higher fever.
  • You have a new rash.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You cough more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the color of your mucus.
  • You are not getting better as expected.