How contagious is bronchitis?

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Bronchitis

Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How are they Different?

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchioles (air-carrying tubes in the lungs) are inflamed and make too much mucus. There are two basic types of bronchitis:

  • Chronic bronchitis is defined as cough productive of sputum that persists for three months out of the year for at least two consecutive years. The cough and inflammation may be caused by initial respiratory infection or illness, exposure to tobacco smoke or other irritating substances in the air. Chronic bronchitis can cause airflow obstruction and then is grouped under the term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Acute or short-term bronchitis is more common and usually is caused by a viral infection. Episodes of acute bronchitis can be related to and made worse by smoking. Acute bronchitis could last for 10 to 14 days, possibly causing symptoms for three weeks.

Excess mucus in the bronchial tubes

What is the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia?

In terms of symptoms, these two diseases may seem very similar. Both cause cough, fever, fatigue, and a heavy feeling in your chest. Bronchitis can sometimes progress to pneumonia.

Despite similarities, the conditions are different. First, bronchitis involves the bronchial tubes, while pneumonia affects the alveoli, or the air sacs in the lungs. Second, pneumonia symptoms are usually much worse. In addition, pneumonia can be life-threatening, especially in older people and other vulnerable groups.

If your symptoms do not get better in a week or so, it is best to contact your doctor.

What causes bronchitis?

Usually, acute bronchitis is brought on by a viral infection, though it may also be caused by a bacterial infection. The flu and colds are examples of viral infections.

Chronic bronchitis is usually, but not always, caused by smoking tobacco. It can also be caused by exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, air pollution, dust, or toxic gases. Your risk can be increased by family history of bronchitis, having asthma and allergies, and having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • A cough that is frequent and produces mucus.
  • A lack of energy.
  • A wheezing sound when breathing (may or may not be present).
  • A fever (may or may not be present).
  • Shortness of breath.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Acute bronchitis can be contagious because it is usually caused by infection with a virus or bacteria. Chronic bronchitis is not likely to be contagious because it is a condition usually caused by long-term irritation of airways.

How long are you contagious if you have acute bronchitis?

If you have begun taking antibiotics for bronchitis, you usually stop being contagious 24 hours after starting the medication. If you have a viral form of bronchitis, antibiotics will not work. You will be contagious for at least a few days and possibly for as long as a week.

How is acute bronchitis spread?

If bronchitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, it is spread the same ways that colds are spread—by germs traveling through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. You can breathe the germs in if you are close enough. You could also touch something that has germs on it, like a door, and then transfer the germs by touching your nose, mouth or eyes. That is why good hand washing practices are important for adults and children.

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Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Table of Contents

Bronchitis is an infection of the lungs. When the main airways or bronchial tubes become inflamed due to an infection the inner lining swells and produces extra mucus, triggering coughs as the body attempts to clear the passageways. Bronchitis is contagious if caused by a viral illness, like the flu, or bacterial infection. If bronchitis is caused by environmental factors and not an infection then bronchitis is not contagious. Since the majority of cases are contagious it is important to take necessary precautions to prevent getting others sick.

What Causes Bronchitis?

The causes of bronchitis are:

  • Viral illnesses – By far, this is the most common and most likely cause of bronchitis, especially acute bronchitis. It is estimated to cause around 90% of all acute bronchitis cases. These include the common cold and the flu.
  • Bacterial infections – Unlike the viruses above, 99% of bacteria are good for your system and allow you to digest food, fight cancer and other life-saving functions. However, there are bacteria that when trapped in your lungs can cause an infection, resulting in bronchitis.
  • Irritants in the air – As explained further in the risk factors below, particles in the air can also lead to inflammation in the lungs and bronchitis.

In addition to these causes, there are several other factors that increase your likelihood of contracting bronchitis:

  • Weak immune system – It is harder for your body to fight off the virus or germs when your immune system is already worn down. It is very common for you to contract bronchitis after your body has worn down its immune system from fighting off a cold or flu. This also means that children, older adults and individuals with chronic conditions are especially at risk.
  • Stomach acid issues – This includes heartburn, acid reflux or GERD as stomach acid can get caught in the bronchial tubes and inflame the lungs.
  • Smoking – Smoking traps particles in the lungs that can damage and irritate the bronchial tubes, creating bronchitis.
  • Environmental factors – Any environment with airborne chemicals, large amounts of dust or other harsh conditions that allow particles into your lungs can also produce acute or chronic bronchitis.
  • History of respiratory illnesses – Emphysema, which is a disease that causes over-inflation of the lung’s air sacs (alveoli) or asthma, which is a similar inflammation of the airways, are examples of respiratory issues that increase the likelihood of contracting bronchitis.

Understanding Viral Bronchitis

There are two main types of Bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is less serious and much more common. It usually forms three to four days following a viral illness, like a cold or flu and is sometimes called viral bronchitis. Acute bronchitis may begin with a dry cough and then a cough with mucus after a few days. Symptoms of acute bronchitis usually last for 2-3 weeks and then clear as your body fights off the illness. These symptoms include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue, nasal congestion, sore throat and low fever and chills.

Is acute bronchitis contagious? Since the majority of cases are caused by viral illnesses, bronchitis is contagious. Acute bronchitis can also be caused by a bacterial infection, though this is much less common. Bacterial bronchitis is also contagious. How long is bronchitis contagious? This all depends on the virus or bacterial infection. Most often, the bronchitis contagious period is reported as 2 to 7 days. There are hundreds of different viruses or bacteria that are contagious for different lengths of time. Most doctors will not test for a specific virus or bacteria, so it is best to consider yourself contagious as long as you have common cold symptoms.

Other Causes of Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is bronchitis that is recurring and comes back or lasts for longer than a few weeks. While chronic bronchitis is much less likely than acute bronchitis, it is much more serious. Chronic bronchitis symptoms are similar acute bronchitis symptoms, but the symptoms may last for longer than three months. The symptoms can also get worse after physical activity, as people age or at different times in the year.

Chronic bronchitis is most often caused by environmental factors with smoking being the number one cited cause. Estimates suggest that 90% of patients with chronic bronchitis have some history of smoking. The more frequent the infections and exposure to these factors the more likelihood of developing chronic bronchitis or exacerbating symptoms.

Treatments and Remedies for Bronchitis

In most cases, bronchitis goes away on its own after a couple of weeks, with the most severe symptoms lessening after the first few days. Since the majority of cases are caused by viral infections, antibiotics for bronchitis are not needed. Thus, the treatment for bronchitis is simply rest, drink water and eat healthy meals. If it is a rare case of bronchitis caused by bacteria then a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. The most likely choices for antibiotics are amoxicillin and doxycycline with erythromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. If you have asthma or allergies and contract bronchitis, a doctor may also prescribe an inhaler to counteract the narrowing of the airways and help shortness of breath.

Talk to a doctor before using cough medicine. Cough medicine allows the body to be less irritated by mucus, but this inhibits the body from coughing the mucus and getting it out of your system. Over-the-counter pain medication such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with the pain and any feverish symptoms.

The treatment for bronchitis that is recurring is similar to acute cases. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis other than addressing the underlying causes, most commonly smoking and other environmental factors. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator inhaler, which helps clear airways, or corticosteroids, which contain steroid hormones to decrease inflammation in the lungs. If damage to the lungs is too great, oxygen therapy may be necessary to regulate oxygen intake.

Since most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral illnesses that do not respond to antibiotics, here are some ways to lessen the symptoms as your body works to get better:

  • Sleep a lot – Rest allows the body to recuperate and ensure minimal exposure to irritants in the air. It is arguably the best home remedy for bronchitis.
  • Stay hydrated – Some doctors recommend as many as 12 glasses of water a day to help keep your immune system working and thin out the mucus.
  • Take hot showers –The steam can help loosen the mucus and clear the lungs. You can also use a humidifier.
  • Avoid dairy products – Dairy products can make mucus thicker. Contrary to popular belief, it does not make you produce more mucus.
  • Gargle warm saltwater – If you have a sore throat, gargling with warm salt water can help relieve pain associated with an inflamed throat. A recommended amount is 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon of salt for an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
  • Drink ginger, lemon or licorice tea with honey – Ginger, lemon and honey have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. There is some documented evidence to support that lemon can help reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function. While not a cure-all, some studies have shown honey can treat infections and act as cough suppression. Similarly, licorice has some research to suggest it can decrease swelling, coughing or mucus secretions.
  • Take oregano oil – Surprisingly, the same oregano oil to spice delicious meals can be helpful as a medicine. Taking a few drops by the mouth can be helpful with your cough.
  • Breathe in steam with eucalyptus oil – Eucalyptus oil can help loosen phlegm. You can add drops of the oil to boiling water and breathe in the steam. Note – Do not ingest unless recommended by your doctor and never give or apply to the skin of a child younger than 2 years old as it is toxic.

How to Prevent the Spread of Contagious Bronchitis

How contagious is bronchitis? Bronchitis is the same level of contagious as a cold or flu, so it is important to take the necessary precautions. If you have bronchitis caused by a viral illness or bacteria infection, do your best to prevent the spread of any viruses or bacteria that could get others sick. While the best thing would be to isolate yourself until you feel better, that is not always feasible or rational. Some easy precautions you can take to reduce the potential spread of bronchitis and other respiratory viruses in general include:

  • Thoroughly washing your hands in soap and water after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose
  • Using hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands
  • Staying home from work or school
  • Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Wearing a face mask (these can easily be found at your local pharmacy)

Above all, make sure you see your doctor if you need any form of relief, develop a persistent fever or have chronic bronchitis. You should also see your doctor immediately if you:

  • Cough blood
  • Cough thick, dark mucus
  • Cannot sleep due to coughing
  • Cough for longer than 3 weeks
  • Lose weight suddenly
  • Have a high fever
  • Have trouble breathing

Preventing Contagious Bronchitis

If a friend, coworker or family member around you has bronchitis you may be concerned about getting sick or contracting an illness yourself. To protect yourself:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water – Even if you have not made direct contact with another person, you are still touching doorknobs, phones and other objects that may be contaminated.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – Your skin acts as a tough barrier that viruses cannot get through, but they can get in through other openings more easily.
  • Consider getting vaccinated – Flu shots and the pneumococcal vaccine can effectively protect you from viral and bacterial infections leading to a cold, flu or bronchitis.

Preventing Non-Contagious Bronchitis

Irritants in the air cause non-contagious bronchitis so it is important to think through your exposure to environmental factors:

  • Avoid smoking or exposure to cigarette smoke – Cigarette smoke irritates the lungs by damaging tiny hairs inside airways meant to filter out particles in the air. This damage makes it much easier for you to develop an infection.
  • Keep your home dry, clean and well ventilated – This will help eliminate the potential for mold and fungal growth.
  • Wear a mask in harsh environments – If you are in an environment with chemical fumes, be sure to wear a mask to limit your exposure and filter the air going into your lungs.

Worrying about spreading any sort of illness is natural, but if you stay vigilant and use common sense you should have no problem maintaining your health and the health of those around you. If you think you may have bronchitis consult your doctor or visit an urgent care center as soon as you can.

Learn About Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is a form of lower respiratory tract inflammation affecting the air tubes (bronchi) of the lungs.

Key Facts

  • Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly.
  • It means that the tubes that carry air to your lungs are inflamed.
  • It usually gets better on its own without the need for antibiotics.
  • The infection usually lasts for 3-10 days; but the cough can continue for several weeks.
  • It is different from chronic bronchitis, a chronic disease for which there is no cure.

What Is Acute Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is the sudden development of inflammation in bronchial tubes—the major airways into your lungs. It usually happens because of a virus or breathing in things that irritate the lungs such as tobacco smoke, fumes, dust and air pollution. Bacteria sometimes cause acute bronchitis.

How Acute Bronchitis Affects Your Body

In acute bronchitis, cells that line the bronchi become infected. The infection usually starts in the nose or throat and travels to the bronchial tubes. When the body tries to fight the infection, it causes the bronchial tubes to swell. This causes you to cough. Sometimes it is a dry cough, but often you will cough up mucus (sputum). The inflammation also causes less air to be able to move through the bronchial tubes, which can cause wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Eventually, the immune system fights off the infection. Acute bronchitis usually lasts for 3-10 days. However, your cough and mucus (sputum) production can last for several weeks after the infection has cleared.

How Serious Is Acute Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is temporary and usually does not cause any permanent breathing difficulties. It is possible for people with weakened immune systems or other major health problems to develop severe problems such as pneumonia or respiratory failure. In general, those who develop major problems from acute bronchitis are:

  • The elderly
  • Young children
  • People with other major health conditions including cancer or diabetes
  • People who have not been immunized for the flu, pneumonia and whooping cough.

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Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors “

Is Bronchitis Contagious? 9 Ways to Not Spread It

Is Bronchitis Contagious After Taking Antibiotics?

Doctors usually do not prescribe antibiotics for bronchitis since most cases are caused by a virus (and antibiotics cannot kill viruses).

RELATED: Antibiotics Often Prescribed to People Without Infection, Study Reveals

But if bronchitis is caused by a bacteria and it’s not improving, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. After 24 hours of starting the medication, you should no longer be contagious. (12,13)

Is Bronchitis Contagious for Babies?

Infants and babies under 2 years more commonly get an infection called bronchiolitis, which causes the tiny breathing tubes of the lungs, called bronchioles, to become swollen and inflamed and filled with mucous, restricting airflow and making it difficult for babies to breathe. (Bronchitis, in contrast, affects the larger central airways, called the bronchi, and is more common in older children and adults.)

Bronchiolitis occurs more often in infants than older children because their airways are very small and can become blocked more easily. (14,15,16,17) There are several viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, including those that cause the common cold and the flu.

Viruses that cause bronchiolitis are highly contagious, and are transmitted through droplets in the air though sneezes and coughs, and can also be spread when babies touch toys and other objects, and then bring their hands to their mouth, nose, and eyes. (15,16,17) Younger infants are more vulnerable, and the best way to guard against viruses that can cause bronchiolitis (for all babies) is to wash your hands often, especially before touching your baby. Also keep infants away from anyone who has a cold or cough.

Here’s How Not to Get Bronchitis — Starting With Avoiding the Germs That Cause It

There’s no way to completely eliminate your risk of developing bronchitis, but you can take measures to reduce your risk. And if you’re someone who is at an increased risk of developing bronchitis (due to asthma, age, or other factors), following these steps may be even more important to help stay well: (12)

1. Wash Your Hands Thoroughly and Often

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of getting bronchitis is to avoid getting a viral illness in the first place. And one of the best ways to avoid getting an infection is by washing your hands, especially before, during, and after preparing food and before eating; after blowing your nose; and before and after taking care of someone who is sick.

And yes, there is a right way to wash your hands: Get a good lather and scrub your hands — including the backs of the hands, between the fingers, and under the nails — for at least 20 seconds, or the time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” from start to end two times.

If washing with soap and water isn’t possible, clean hands with a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol. (3,18,19,20)

2. Avoid Touching Your Face

In addition to good handwashing habits, it’s a good idea to remember not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with your hands, says Dr. Gonzales. “Keep your hands away and wash numerous times a day” says Gonzales. (18)

3. Get a Flu Shot

The flu is a common cause of bronchitis. Getting an annual flu shot can lower your risk of getting sick. Research has shown that if you do get sick after getting the flu shot, your illness may be milder, which can help lower your risk of developing bronchitis. (3,21)

4. Keep Your Immune System Strong

Get plenty of sleep each night, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and keep stress in check. Research has shown that feeling more psychological stress can increase your risk of getting a cold. (22) But, things like eating a healthy diet and exercising can help keep your immune system healthy, helping your body ward off illness. (23) “Exercise keeps everything flowing and circulating, which can help maintain a robust immune system,” Gonzales says.

5. Don’t Overexert Yourself

Moderate exercise is beneficial for immune system health, but overdoing it may actually be counterproductive, especially during cold and flu season, Gonzales says. While previous research has shown moderate-intensity exercise can improve immune function and potentially help reduce the risk of getting a viral respiratory infection, prolonged and intense exercise may actually suppress immune system function. (24)

RELATED: Should You Work Out When You’re Sick?

6. Clean Surfaces

The flu virus can live on a surface for up to 48 hours after someone who is infected touches it. When someone who doesn’t have the flu touches that surface and then touches their own eyes or mouth, they can become infected.

To prevent illness from spreading, especially during cold and flu season, be sure to regularly wipe down commonly touched surfaces, like doorknobs and refrigerator handles. This is especially important if someone in the family has bronchitis or is coming down with a cold or the flu. (25)

7. Don’t Smoke

Smoking can increase your risk for developing bronchitis. If you smoke, stop, and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. (1)

8. Consider Vitamin C and Zinc

When it comes to supplements that may help ward off viral infections, two may be worth considering: vitamin C and zinc.

A meta-analysis published in 2013 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews looked at 29 studies and found that vitamin C may reduce the severity and duration of colds in physically active people. (26) The data is still unclear about whether or not the general population benefits from getting extra vitamin C, but experts say for otherwise healthy individuals, extra vitamin C is safe to try, as extra vitamin C not used by the body gets excreted in urine. (27) Gonzales suggests taking 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day during cold and flu season, preventively.

As for zinc, there is substantial evidence showing that zinc lozenges may reduce the duration of a cold when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start, says Holguin. (28) There are not necessarily generally accepted guidelines on what dose of zinc works best, but a review published in 2017 in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open found that a dose of about 80 mg per day was effective and safe (when taken for a two-year period). (29)

9. Consider Wearing a Surgical Mask

If you have COPD, asthma, or another lung condition, wearing a face mask if you may be exposed to dust or fumes, or if you’re going to be near crowds of people, can help reduce your risk of exposure to irritants and viruses. (1,3)

Acute bronchitis

Most people DO NOT need antibiotics for acute bronchitis caused by a virus. The infection will almost always go away on its own within 1 week. Doing these things may help you feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If you have asthma or another chronic lung condition, use your inhaler.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take aspirin or acetaminophen if you have a fever. DO NOT give aspirin to children.
  • Breathe moist air by using a humidifier or steaming up the bathroom.

Certain medicines that you can buy without a prescription can help break up or loosen mucus. Look for the word “guaifenesin” on the label. Ask the pharmacist for help finding it.

If your symptoms do not improve or if you are wheezing, your provider may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways.

If your provider thinks you also have bacteria in your airways, they may prescribe antibiotics. This medicine will only get rid of bacteria, not viruses.

Your provider may also prescribe corticosteroid medicine to reduce swelling in your lungs.

If you have the flu and it is caught in the first 48 hours after getting sick, your provider might also prescribe antiviral medicine.

Other tips include:

  • DO NOT smoke.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution.
  • Wash your hands (and your children’s hands) often to avoid spreading viruses and other germs.

Bronchiolitis

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What Is Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis (brong-kee-oh-LYE-tiss) is an infection of the respiratory tract. It happens when tiny airways called bronchioles (BRONG-kee-olz) get infected with a virus. They swell and fill with mucus, which can make breathing hard.

Bronchiolitis is more common during the winter months. Most cases can be managed at home.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Bronchiolitis?

The first symptoms of bronchiolitis are usually the same as those of a cold:

  • stuffy nose and congestion
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • fever

Usually, symptoms get better on their own. But sometimes the cough might get worse and and a child may start wheezing or have noisy breathing.

Who Gets Bronchiolitis?

Bronchiolitis:

  • most often affects infants and young children because their small airways can easily get blocked
  • is most common during the first 2 years of life, especially in very young babies
  • is more common in premature babies, children with lung or heart problems, and kids with weak immune systems

Kids who go to childcare, have siblings in school, or are around secondhand smoke have a higher risk for bronchiolitis. Older kids and adults can get bronchiolitis, but the infection usually is mild.

What Causes Bronchiolitis?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of bronchiolitis. Sometimes, the common cold and the flu also can cause it.

How Is Bronchiolitis Diagnosed?

When they suspect bronchiolitis, doctors listen to the child’s chest and check oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter.

Usually, no tests are needed. The doctor may use a swab to get a sample of mucus from the nose for testing. This helps with identifying the type of virus causing the problem.

A chest X-ray might be done if the child’s oxygen level is low or the doctor suspects pneumonia.

How Is Bronchiolitis Treated?

Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and don’t need specific medical treatment. Antibiotics can’t help because viruses cause bronchiolitis. Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections.

Treatment focuses on easing symptoms. Kids with bronchiolitis need time to recover and plenty of fluids. Make sure your child gets enough to drink by offering fluids in small amounts often.

You can use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in your child’s room to help loosen mucus in the airway and relieve cough and congestion. Clean it as recommended to prevent buildup of mold or bacteria. Avoid hot-water and steam humidifiers, which can cause scalding.

To clear nasal congestion, try a nasal aspirator and saline (saltwater) nose drops. This can be especially helpful before feeding and sleeping.

Talk to the doctor before giving your child any medicine. For babies who are old enough, you may be able to give medicine to help with fever and make your child more comfortable. Follow the package directions about how much to give and how often. But cough and cold medicines should not be given to any babies or young kids. When in doubt, call your doctor.

Babies who have trouble breathing, are dehydrated, or seem very tired should be checked by a doctor. Those with serious symptoms may need care in a hospital to get fluids and, sometimes, help with breathing.

Is Bronchiolitis Contagious?

Viruses that cause bronchiolitis spread easily through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Germs can stay on hands, toys, doorknobs, tissues, and other surfaces. People can be contagious for several days or even weeks.

How Long Does Bronchiolitis Last?

Bronchiolitis usually lasts about 1–2 weeks. Sometimes it can take several weeks for symptoms to go away.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Bronchiolitis often is a mild illness. But sometimes it can cause severe symptoms. When it does, kids need treatment in a hospital.

Get medical care right away if a baby:

  • has fast, shallow breathing and you can see the belly moving up and down quickly
  • has labored breathing, when the areas below the ribs, between the ribs, and/or in the neck sink in as a child breathes in
  • has flaring nostrils
  • is very fussy and can’t be comforted
  • is very tired or won’t wake up for feedings
  • has a poor appetite or isn’t feeding well
  • fewer wet diapers or peeing less than usual
  • has a blue color to the lips, tongue, or nails

You know your child best. Call your doctor right away if something doesn’t seem right.

Can Bronchiolitis Be Prevented?

Washing hands well and often is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses that can cause bronchiolitis and other infections.

Also:

  • Keep infants away from anyone who has a cold or cough.
  • Keep kids away from secondhand smoke.
  • Keep toys and surfaces clean.

Reviewed by: Anoop K. Palta, MD Date reviewed: January 2020

January 19, 2016

People often ask, “Is bronchitis contagious?”

The short answer is “Yes it can be,” but before answering this question, it is important to understand exactly what bronchitis is, the two different kinds, symptoms, when to go to the doctor, and treatment.

Bronchitis is an inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes. They can become inflamed or infected by viruses, bacteria and other irritant particles. When this occurs, the membrane swells and grows thicker and it narrows or shuts off the tiny airways in the lungs. This condition reduces the ability to breathe in air and oxygen into the lungs. Patients also can have heavy mucus or phlegm forming in the airways.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.

  • Acute Bronchitis
    Acute bronchitis is usually viral in origin, but sometimes it is caused by bacteria, and it typically lasts from one to three weeks. Those who are in otherwise good health, the mucus membrane should return to normal after recovery from the initial lung infection, which lasts for several days.
  • Chronic Bronchitis
    Chronic bronchitis is a serious long-term disorder that often requires regular medical treatment. The chronic form can last at least 3 months of the year for two years in a row.

People with asthma may also may have asthmatic bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes.

It is much harder to recover from chronic bronchitis, and smokers are highly susceptible. Every cigarette damages the cilia, the tiny hair-like structures in the lungs that are responsible for brushing out debris, irritants and excess mucus. In some heavy smokers, the cilia eventually stop functioning since the mucus membrane lining the airways stays inflamed. Clogged with mucus, the lungs then are vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections, which over time permanently damage the lungs airways. This permanent condition is called COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic bronchitis is one of two main types of COPD. The other main form is emphysema. Both conditions make it difficult to breathe.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

  • Coughing Spells – Coughing is the most prevalent symptom of bronchitis. They are usually short and weak though frequent.
  • Phlegm – Typically, the hacking cough is accompanied by phlegm production. It usually begins to appear after 24 to 48 hours following the onset of coughing. It may be white, yellow or green, and in very severe cases, it may be streaked with red blood, too.
  • Chest Discomfort – Patients often complain of discomfort in the chest area. Some experience constriction and heaviness, while others feel pain below the breastbone on taking deep breaths.
  • Breathlessness – This symptom may also be experienced by bronchitis patients. It is usually in the more severe cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated state of chronic bronchitis that this occurs.
  • Difficulty in Breathing – While breathlessness usually is triggered by exertion or prolonged coughing, difficulty in breathing implies an enduring impediment to taking in air. This usually occurs in patients of chronic bronchitis, whose bronchial airways are majorly blocked.
  • Wheezing – A common symptom of both acute and chronic bronchitis is wheezing. This can be characterized by a whistling sound on exhaling. It is the constriction of the airways that causes this sound and while it is alarming to hear, it subsides as the coughing spells do.
  • Fever – Many patients, especially children, tend to get a low grade fever alongside other symptoms.
  • Chills–Chills are experienced in patients who also contract fever which is itself is not a typical symptom.
  • Runny Nose – This symptom is one found in children suffering from either form of bronchitis. They not only have cough and phlegm, but also liquid mucus running down their noses.
  • Fatigue – Patients often complain of fatigue. Though there is no particular reason for such tiredness, it is perhaps the exertion due to coughing.

Bronchitis can be contagious, but it depends upon which kind the patient has. Typically, those with acute bronchitis can be contagious while those with the chronic form are less likely to be able to spread it to someone else.

Acute bronchitis is contagious if it is caused by either a cold or flu viruses. Since these viruses are contagious, acute bronchitis usually is, too.These germs may be present in mucus that can be spread through coughing or sneezing.

How long will a patient be contagious? It depends on the type of virus. In most cases, the person will be contagious for a few days, and possibly as long as a week. Since the patient may not know what kind of illness he or she has — and doctors don’t test for individual viruses, since there are hundreds of them — it’s best to assume that one could spread the disease as long as cold symptoms are present.

Special care should be taken to avoid spreading the condition, including covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands frequently or using hand sanitizers. Getting a flu shot may reduce your risk of bronchitis caused by the flu.

When should you go see a doctor?

A person should seek medical help if:

  • A persistent cough has lingered for more than 3 weeks. That can be a sign that you have chronic bronchitis, asthma, or another problem that needs regular medical care.
  • The cough is so uncomfortable or so hard that it is impossible to sleep.
  • The patient has a fever over 100.4 F.
  • You’re wheezing or feel like you can’t breathe.
  • There’s blood in the mucus you cough up, or you have other symptoms that seem unusual for a cold.

What is the treatment for bronchitis?

Texas MedClinic concurs with the philosophy of WebMD as follows:

Conventional treatment for acute bronchitis may consist of simple measures such as getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, avoiding smoke and fumes, and possibly getting a prescription for an inhaled bronchodilator and/or cough syrup. In some cases of chronic bronchitis, oral steroids to reduce inflammation and/or supplemental oxygen may be necessary.

In healthy people with bronchitis who have normal lungs and no chronic health problems, antibiotics are usually not necessary. In most cases, the cause is a virus and antibiotics will not help. A productive (phlegm-producing) cough may come with acute bronchitis. This is your body’s way of getting rid of excess mucus. However, if your cough is truly disruptive — it keeps you from sleeping, is so forceful it becomes painful, or it persists for two or three weeks — then your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant.

In most cases, you should simply do all the things you usually would do for a cold: Take aspirin or acetaminophen for discomfort and drink lots of liquids.

Do not give aspirin to a child under age 19 because of the increased risk of Reye’s syndrome.

If you have chronic bronchitis, your lungs are vulnerable to infections. Unless your doctor advises against it, get a yearly flu shot as well as a vaccination against pneumonia. One dose of pneumonia vaccine, PPSV23, will help protect you from a common type of bacterial pneumonia until the age of 65. At that time, you will likely need a different form of pneumonia shot followed by a booster of the PPSV23. You may need a booster sooner if you have certain other medical problems. Talk to your doctor about the schedule that is right for you.

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Bronchitis

Treating bronchitis

In most cases, acute bronchitis clears up by itself within a few weeks without the need for treatment.

In the meantime, you should drink lots of fluid and get plenty of rest.

In some cases, the symptoms of bronchitis can last much longer. If symptoms last for at least 3 months, it’s known as chronic bronchitis.

There’s no cure for chronic bronchitis, but some lifestyle changes can help ease your symptoms, such as:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • regular moderate exercise
  • avoiding smoking

There are several medicines to relieve symptoms.

Medicines called bronchodilators and steroids “open up” the airways and can be prescribed as an inhaler or as tablets.

Mucolytic medicines thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up.

Managing symptoms at home

If you have acute bronchitis:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluid – this helps prevent dehydration and thins the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • treat headaches, a high temperature, and aches and pains with paracetamol or ibuprofen – although ibuprofen is not recommended if you have asthma

Beware of cough medicines

There’s little evidence that cough medicines work.

Find out more about treating coughs

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recommended that over-the-counter cough medicines should not be given to children under the age of 6.

Children aged 6 to 12 should only use them on the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.

As an alternative to an over-the-counter cough medicine, try making your own mixture of honey and lemon, which can help soothe a sore throat and ease your cough.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not routinely prescribed for bronchitis because it’s normally caused by a virus.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and prescribing them when they’re unnecessary can, over time, make bacteria more resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Find out more about antibiotic resistance

A GP will only prescribe antibiotics if you have an increased risk of developing complications, such as pneumonia.

Antibiotics may also be recommended for:

  • premature babies
  • elderly people over the age of 80
  • people with a history of heart, lung, kidney or liver disease
  • people with a weakened immune system, which could be the result of an underlying condition or a side effect of a treatment like steroids
  • people with cystic fibrosis

If you’re prescribed antibiotics for bronchitis, it’s likely to be a 5-day course of amoxicillin or doxycycline.

Side effects of these drugs are uncommon, but include feeling sick, being sick and diarrhoea.

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