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acute bronchitis

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Lungs and bronchial tree

Alternative Names 
inflammation of the bronchi, infection of the bronchi

Bronchi are the branches of the main windpipe that carry oxygen into the lungs. Acute bronchitis is inflammation, or swelling, of one or more bronchi.

What is going on in the body? 
Acute bronchitis is often caused by an infection with a virus or bacteria. The infection irritates the lining of the air passages, called bronchi. This causes the symptoms of bronchitis.

What are the signs and symptoms of the infection? 
Acute bronchitis causes: What are the causes and risks of the infection? 
The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a viral infection, such as the flu. Sometimes bacteria can cause this disease as well. Breathing air that contains irritants, such as chemical fumes, acid fumes, dust or smoke, increases the risk of the disease.

What can be done to prevent the infection? 
A person can decrease the risk of getting acute bronchitis by:
  • avoiding close contact with people who have bronchitis
  • stopping smoking
  • wearing a face mask when working with chemicals, dust, or other lung irritants
How is the infection diagnosed? 
A history and physical examination are usually enough to diagnose this infection. A chest x-ray may be done to check for possible pneumonia, but it is often normal with acute bronchitis. A person may be asked to give a sample of phlegm or sputum to be examined by the laboratory.

What are the long-term effects of the infection? 
Acute bronchitis may take up to 8 weeks to resolve. Once the infection is over, there are generally no long term effects. Some persons, especially smokers, are more likely to develop repeated bouts of acute bronchitis.

What are the risks to others? 
Acute bronchitis is often contagious. A person who has symptoms of bronchitis should cover the mouth when coughing, avoid sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, and wash the hands frequently.

What are the treatments for the infection? 
Treatment is aimed at relieving the symptoms and may include the following:
  • analgesia for minor discomfort and to reduce fever
  • cough suppressant
  • cough expectorant, to thin the mucous and make it easier to cough up
  • antibiotics, if the cause is bacterial
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • increasing air moisture with the use of a cool-mist humidifier
  • if a person smokes, he or she should not smoke while sick. Smoking delays recovery and makes complications more likely.
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Some people have allergic reactions to medications or may get an upset stomach from them. Antibiotics may cause diarrhoea as well.

What happens after treatment for the infection? 
Once the person feels better, he or she is free to return to normal activities.

How is the infection monitored? 
Once the person has recovered, no further monitoring is required. Those who have repeated bouts of acute bronchitis or other serious medical problems may require monitoring.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 15/9/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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