What to do if you get acute bronchitis, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and Based on a text by Dr Finn Rasmussen
Acute bronchitis is temporary inflammation of the airways characterised by a cough and mucus. It’s more common in winter and often comes on after a cold or the flu.
Acute bronchitis can affect people of all ages, but mostly affects children under the age of five. The good news is most cases of bronchitis can be treated easily at home. We look at acute bronchitis causes, symptoms and treatment options:
What is acute bronchitis?
Acute (ie recent onset) bronchitis is an inflammation of the lower respiratory passages (bronchi).
Acute bronchitis causes
What causes acute bronchitis? The usual cause is an infection due to a virus. The viruses responsible for acute bronchitis include those that might otherwise only cause a cold. But in bronchitis they spread further down the respiratory tree to the large airways.
The bronchial lining, already damaged by this infection, is then open to secondary attack by bacteria.
Acute bronchitis risk factors
People who have underlying lung problems, such as chronic (ie long-standing) bronchitis, are more likely to get acute bronchitis as their lung defence mechanism against infection is lower than normal. Smoking is the commonest reason for this to happen.
Although much less common, exposure to irritant fumes, small particles from textiles and dust can be a cause of acute bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis symptoms
How does acute bronchitis affect the bronchi? Viruses or bacteria cause inflammation in the respiratory passages, which results in:
- Irritation of the respiratory passages, causing a cough.
- An increased production of mucus (phlegm).
- The swelling of the mucous membrane (lining) of the bronchi, along with the increased production of mucus makes the airways narrower, leading to a wheeze.
- The inflammation can lead to fever, fatigue, yellow-grey phlegm and a general feeling of ill-health.
What makes acute bronchitis worse?
- Cigarette smoke.
- Cold, close, damp weather.
- Air pollution.
Acute bronchitis treatment
What can you do to help yourself?
✔️ Drink plenty of water. Try hot water with honey and lemon.
✔️ Cough naturally to remove the phlegm.
✔️ Elevate your head and shoulders with pillows when you sleep
⚠️ Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age, unless on the advice of a doctor.
When to see your GP about acute bronchitis
If any of the following occurs, make an appointment with your GP:
- If it gets difficult to breathe and you have pain in your chest.
- If you cough up blood or your phlegm becomes dark brown or rust coloured.
- If the symptoms seems to be getting worse and you feel very unwell, disoriented or confused.
- If the cough lasts for more than three weeks.
- If you have an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, asthma or cancer.
Asthmatic people may find that their asthma becomes worse during a bronchitis infection, and should discuss with their doctor what steps to take with their treatment if this happens.
Acute bronchitis medicine
As the majority of infections are caused by a virus it is not usually possible to treat acute bronchitis with antibiotics unless your doctor suspects that secondary bacterial infection has occurred.
If you have asthma then the use of beta-2 agonists such as salbutamol, may give some relief. These may be especially useful for children who are by far the largest age group to be affected by this particular infection.
Cough and cold remedies over the counter or from the pharmacy will not have much effect on the infection and should not be given to children under the age of six.