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Bronchitis (Chest Cold)

Español: Bronquitis (resfriado del pecho)

Overview of Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis (brahn-KITE-uss), or chest cold, is a condition that occurs when the bronchial (BRAHN-kee-uhl) tubes in the lungs become inflamed. The bronchial tubes swell and produce mucus, which causes a person to cough. This often occurs after an upper respiratory infection like a cold. Most symptoms of acute bronchitis (chest pain, shortness of breath, etc.) last for up to 2 weeks, but the cough can last for up to 8 weeks in some people.

Chronic bronchitis lasts a long time, and is more common among smokers. People with chronic bronchitis have a cough with mucus most days for 3 months a year for 2 consecutive years. If you have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, you should visit a specialist to be evaluated.

Visit the American Academy of Family Physicians' website to learn more about acute bronchitis.

Another kind of lung infection that parents should know about is bronchiolitis (BRAHN-kee-oh-LIE-tus). Infants can be diagnosed with bronchiolitis, a viral infection, which can obstruct the small airways and may require treatment. Learn more about bronchiolitis by visiting the National Institutes for Health website

Causes of Bronchitis

Signs and Symptoms of Bronchitis

  • Cough that produces mucus (may be without mucus the first few days)
  • Soreness in the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Low-grade fever (less than 102°F)
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat

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See a Healthcare Provider if You or Your Child has:

  • Temperature higher than 100.4° F
  • A fever and cough with thick or bloody mucus
  • A chronic heart or lung problem
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks
  • Repeated episodes of bronchitis/bronchiolitis

If your child is younger than three months of age and has a fever, it’s important to always call your healthcare provider right away.

Your healthcare provider can determine if you or your child has acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, bronchiolitis, or another type of respiratory infection. Then a decision can be made about possible needed treatment.

Antibiotics are Needed When…

Antibiotics will rarely be needed since acute bronchitis and bronchiolitis are almost always caused by a virus and chronic bronchitis requires other therapies. However, treatment may be prescribed to relieve symptoms. If your healthcare provider diagnoses you or your child with another type of respiratory infection such as pneumonia (knew-MOHN-ya) or whooping cough (pertussis: purr-TUSS-uss), antibiotics will most likely be prescribed.

Antibiotics Will Not Help if…

When bronchitis is caused by a virus or irritation in the air (like cigarette smoke) , antibiotic treatment will not help it get better.  Since acute bronchitis almost always gets better on its own, it is better to wait and take antibiotics only when they are needed. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can be harmful, and may lead to unwanted side effects like diarrhea, rashes, nausea, and stomach pain. More severe side effects may rarely occur, including life-threatening allergic reactions, kidney toxicity, and severe skin reactions.

Each time you or your child takes an antibiotic, the bacteria that normally live in your body (on the skin, in the intestine, in the mouth and nose, etc.) are more likely to become resistant to antibiotics. Common antibiotics cannot kill infections caused by these resistant germs. Learn more about antibiotic resistance.

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How to Feel Better

Rest, over-the-counter medicines and other self-care methods may help you or your child feel better. For more information about symptomatic relief, visit the Symptom Relief section of this website or talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist.  Remember, always use over-the-counter products as directed.  Many over-the-counter products are not recommended for children younger than certain ages.

Preventing Acute Bronchitis

  • Avoid smoking
  • Avoid exposure to second hand smoke and do not expose children to second hand smoke
  • Practice good hand hygiene
  • Keep you and your child up to date with recommended immunizations

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