If you’ve been dealing with a persistent cough, you may be wondering — could it be bronchitis? Bronchitis is a condition in which the lining of the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs, called bronchial tubes, become inflamed. There are two main types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.
Most cases of acute bronchitis clear up on their own without intervention, says Fernando Holguin, MD, director of asthma clinical and research programs at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Acute bronchitis usually clears up in 3 to 10 days, but your cough could last for several more weeks after the infection has cleared. Bronchitis symptoms are not contagious, but the underlying causes, like a cold or the flu, can be transmitted from one person to another.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition characterized by a cough that produces large amounts of sputum, and the coughing lasts for two to three months of a year for at least two years. The condition is typically a result of long-term exposure to cigarette smoke and other lung irritants, such as dust, fumes, and air pollution. With chronic bronchitis, the coughing is usually worse early in the morning and at night, says Dr. Holguin. “It becomes a part of everyday life,” says Holguin. “It can be distressing and affect one’s quality of life.”
Chronic bronchitis, along with emphysema, are commonly known as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The rest of this article will focus on acute bronchitis and its common signs and symptoms.
Symptoms You’ll Notice if You Have Acute Bronchitis
When you have acute bronchitis you experience frequent coughs that may produce mucus. (2) Some other common symptoms of bronchitis include:
If you have chest pains, trouble breathing, a high fever, blood in your mucus, or a cough that lasts more than three weeks, see a doctor right away, Holguin says.
How Do Bronchitis Symptoms Differ From Pneumonia?
One condition that is commonly mistaken for bronchitis is pneumonia. (3) It can be particularly tricky to tell the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia for a few reasons. For one thing, both bronchitis and pneumonia are conditions that involve inflammation in the chest, and both can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing that produces phlegm.
But, unlike bronchitis, which involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes, pneumonia is caused by an infection of lung tissue, says Holguin. And while most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, pneumonia is often bacterial, which means an antibiotic will help in those instances. (Only about a third of pneumonia cases are caused by a virus.)
While bronchitis is typically associated with a mild fever (below 101 degrees Fahrenheit), pneumonia is most often characterized by a high fever as well as other more serious symptoms, including chest pain and shortness of breath, Holguin adds.
Your doctor will conduct a series of tests to see whether you have bronchitis or pneumonia. She or he will likely listen to your lungs (with pneumonia, doctors hear bubbling, crackling, or rumbling sounds) and order X-rays to look for fluid or pus in the lungs.
When It’s Not Bronchitis: Conditions and Symptoms Commonly Confused With Acute Bronchitis
Pneumonia isn’t the only condition commonly confused with acute bronchitis. The coughing, wheezing, and chest pain that come with acute bronchitis are similar to symptoms of allergies, asthma, the common cold, the flu, sleep apnea, and other conditions. Many people with acute bronchitis will get a sore throat (in medical speak, pharyngitis) with acute bronchitis, thanks to the coughing and wheezing it causes. A sore throat can also be a common symptom of the common cold, laryngitis, the measles, and mononucleosis.
Signs that your symptoms may be something other than acute bronchitis (and mean you should see your doctor) include, a fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, trouble breathing, a cough that produces blood, a cough that lasts longer than two weeks and produces a bad-tasting fluid in the mouth (which could be a sign of a digestive condition), or a lot of wheezing that is more frequent at night or when you’re active.
Conditions that affect the lungs (acute bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia) can be related. For instance, if you get acute bronchitis frequently you may be more likely to develop asthma, a chronic breathing condition.
If you’re experiencing coughing, wheezing, or trouble breathing, it’s important to accurately identify whether it’s bronchitis or something else so that you can get the right treatment. If you’re not sure, see your doctor.
How Bronchitis Is Diagnosed
Bronchitis can be tricky to diagnose because its symptoms often mimic those of other conditions. “Recurring bronchitis can mask an underlying condition such as asthma,” Holguin says.
Most cases of acute bronchitis clear up on their own and don’t require treatment from your doctor. But if you experience unfamiliar symptoms, or if, for instance, you experience coughing spells every time you get a cold, you should see your doctor to rule out any undiagnosed illnesses or underlying problems.
Your doctor will typically ask you how long you’ve had your cough; what kind of mucus, if any, you are producing; and how often or how much you are coughing. (5) He or she will also likely ask for your medical history, including details like whether or not you smoke or spend time around someone who smokes, or if you’ve recently had a cold or the flu. Your doctor may also:
- Listen to your lungs for any abnormal sounds like wheezing
- Have your mucus tested for a bacterial infection (despite a common misconception, you can’t tell by the color of the mucus whether or not the infection is bacterial or viral, or whether there’s definitely an infection at all, Holguin says)
- Test the oxygen levels in your blood
- Order a chest X-ray, lung function tests, or blood tests.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Acute Bronchitis. MedlinePlus. January 2, 2017.
- Acute Bronchitis. American Academy of Family Physicians. February 2021.
- Cough Culprits: What’s the Difference Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia? NIH News in Health. May 2017.
- Deleted, October 7, 2022.
- What Is Bronchitis? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. March 24, 2022.
- Don’t Judge Your Mucus by Its Color. Harvard Health Publishing. June 22, 2020.