Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

a woman with symptoms of bronchitis


The respiratory system is responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Oxygen is needed by the cells of the body to work properly. Without it, the cells would die. On the other hand, carbon dioxide is the waste product needed to be expelled from the body.

The bronchi are the main passageways into the lungs from the nostrils. When someone inhales through the nose or mouth, the air travels down to the larynx, trachea and the bronchi. The bronchi have two branches and they carry air into the bronchioles where there are sacs called alveoli. In these sacs, oxygen, and carbon dioxide exchange happens.

When the bronchi become infected and inflamed, it leads to a condition called bronchitis. The bronchi have walls that produce mucus that traps dust, microorganisms and other particles that may irritate.

The individuals with bronchitis often experience coughing up of thickened mucus, which may become discolored, depending on the severity of the condition. Usually, the bronchi become irritated, inflamed and infected when a cold or a respiratory infection happens. People with bronchitis may have a reduced ability to breathe air, causing an alteration in the entry of oxygen in the lungs.

The most common type of bronchitis is acute bronchitis or a “chest cold”. The symptoms of this condition may last for less than three weeks. For healthy people, the symptoms may improve over several days. However, vulnerable populations like those with weakened immune systems such as people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), or those who are older adults, infants or pregnant, may suffer from severe complications if bronchitis is not treated or managed immediately.


For both acute and chronic bronchitis, the main symptoms include:

  • A cough with productive mucus or sputum, which can be white, yellowish-gray or green (sometimes, it can be streaked with blood)
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty of breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Tiredness
  • Aches and pains

For people with acute bronchitis, the cough may last for a few weeks after other symptoms have disappeared. On the other hand, chronic bronchitis patients may experience the difficulty of breathing or wheezing because of swollen airways. Chronic bronchitis may last for at least three months, with recurring attacks for at least two consecutive years.

However, seek medical attention if a cough prevents you from sleeping, you have a fever of more than 100.4 F or 38 C, you have a cough for more than three weeks, you have a discolored mucus or blood-streaked mucus and you have the difficulty of breathing.


Bronchitis can be caused by a bacteria or a virus. However, viral bronchitis is more common. The virus that causes bronchitis is the same one that causes colds and flu or influenza. Since the culprit is a virus, taking antibiotics may not help curb the disease.

The virus can be spread through tiny droplets that come out from the mouth and nose when someone sneezes and coughs. These droplets can spread as much as 1 meter and they can be suspended in the air for some time, then lands on surfaces where they can thrive for 24 hours.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is caused by the recurrent irritation and damage to the lungs and airways. The most common causes of chronic bronchitis are smoking.
The other causes include exposure to air pollution, fumes, and dust in the environment.

4Risk Factors

Some people may become more susceptible to developing bronchitis.

Breathing irritant substancesBronchitis can be triggered by the inhalation of substances that irritate the airways such as cigarette smoke, chemicals in the household, and smog.

People who smoke are at a higher risk of developing both chronic and acute bronchitis.
This is not only applicable to smokers but also those who are exposed to secondhand smoke.

Those workers who are exposed to the irritants at work may become more susceptible to developing bronchitis. They are usually exposed to textiles, grains and chemical fumes.

Weakened immune system – People with a compromised immune system may have a higher risk of developing bronchitis. The people who are vulnerable are infants, children, pregnant women, older adults and those with HIV, AIDS or those undergoing chemotherapy.

Gastric reflux disease – When a person has recurrent attacks of severe gastrointestinal disease or heartburn, they may have an irritated throat and airways. Due to this, they are more likely to develop bronchitis.


Bronchitis, if left untreated, may lead to serious complications including:

Pneumonia – One of the potentially fatal complications of bronchitis is pneumonia. About one in 20 people with bronchitis may have a secondary infection in the lungs, leading to pneumonia. Bacteria commonly cause the infection but it can be an initial viral infection. Pneumonia is characterized by the presence of fever over 38 degrees C, rapid breathing over 24 breaths per minute, typical breath sounds like fremitus and rales, and a rapid heart rate of more than 100 per minute.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic bronchitis may lead to COPD. This condition may cause decreased lung reserves and breathing problems. Moreover, the presence of COPD may increase the risk of recurrent chest infections.


Initially, the doctor will conduct a complete medical history interview and physical assessment. He will also ask about the symptoms, particularly the duration and characteristic of a cough. During the physical examination, the doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for any abnormal lung sounds.

The other diagnostic tests include:

Chest X-ray – The doctor may request for a chest X-ray that can determine if the patient has pneumonia or another medical condition that may cause a cough. This is vital if the patient is a smoker.

Pulmonary function test – The doctor may also ask for a pulmonary function test.
During this test, the patient will blow into a spirometer, a device that measures how much air the lungs can hold and how quickly the air is released out of the lungs. This test will determine if the patient has other conditions like emphysema and asthma.

Sputum test – The doctor may also ask for a sputum test to be performed. This test will examine the sputum the patient cough up from the lungs. This test may determine what type of pathogen is present that could be helped by antibiotics. It can also detect allergies and pulmonary tuberculosis.


In most cases, acute bronchitis will go away on its own within a few weeks, even without treatment. The best way to treat the symptoms is to drinks lots of fluid and adequate rest.

However, the doctor may prescribe some medicines to provide relief for the symptoms of the patients.


For a cough and difficulty of breathing, the doctor may prescribe the following medications:

Cough medicine – In some cases, cough medicines are prescribed to relieve coughing. However, some doctors prefer not giving this medicine because coughing is an essential way to bring up mucus and remove the other irritants in the airways and lungs.

Mucolytics – These medicines are used to loosen mucus in the airways, making it easier to excrete or cough up sputum.

Bronchodilators – These medicines are used to dilate or open the airways and make it easier to breathe.

To reduce inflammation in the airways, the doctor will prescribe:

Anti-inflammatory medicines and corticosteroids – These medicines are used to reduce inflammation in the airways and decrease chronic inflammation that may cause tissue damage.

The other measures that can be done to help treat bronchitis include:

  • Eating a healthy diet, including fruits and vegetables
  • Engaging in regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoid smoking and get away from smoky environments
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a humidifier to help loosen mucus
  • Perform breathing exercises
  • Avoid lung irritants by wearing a mask when the air is polluted or if you are exposed to irritants at work


Here are the preventive measures for acute bronchitis:

Avoid cigarette smoke – Tobacco or cigarette smoke may increase the risk of chronic bronchitis and it can irritate the lining of the airways.

Practice proper and regular hand washing – Regular handwashing can help reduce the risk of acquiring a viral infection. Wash your hands properly and always use hand sanitizers.

Get vaccinated – Many cases of bronchitis are complications of a viral infection called influenza. Getting a yearly vaccine can help protect the body from getting the flu. You can also get vaccinated against pneumonia.

Get enough sleep – Getting enough sleep and rest will boost your immune system, preventing infections.

Avoid lung irritants – Avoid lung irritants such as dust, smoke, fumes, air pollution and vapors. If you can’t avoid these, you need to wear a mask to cover the nose and mouth.

Avoid touching your nose and mouth – If you were exposed to someone with bronchitis, avoid touching your nose and mouth. Always practice handwashing to reduce the risk of infection.

Avoid sharing utensils or drinking glasses – Do not use drinking glasses and utensils if they were used by other people, especially those with bronchitis.