Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis)

Español: Bronquitis

Cough keeping you up at night? Soreness in your chest and feeling tired? You could have a chest cold.

Antibiotics will not help you get better if you have a chest cold (acute bronchitis).

If you’re healthy without heart or lung problems or a weakened immune system, this information is for you.

This image depicts the difference between a healthy lung air passage and an unhealthy lung air passage.

Swelling of airways in the lungs produce mucus in the lungs and makes you cough.

What is a chest cold (acute bronchitis)?

A chest cold occurs when the airways of the lungs swell and produce mucus in the lungs. That’s what makes you cough. A chest cold, often called acute bronchitis, lasts less than 3 weeks and is the most common type of bronchitis.

Causes

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and often occurs after an upper respiratory infection.

Bacteria can sometimes cause acute bronchitis, but even in these cases, antibiotics are NOT recommended and will not help you get better.

Symptoms

Symptoms of acute bronchitis last less than 3 weeks and can include:

  • Coughing with or without mucus
  • Soreness in the chest
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Sore throat

When to Seek Medical Care

baby icon See a doctor right away if your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or higher.

See a doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Temperature of 100.4 °F or higher
  • Cough with bloody mucus
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks
  • Repeated episodes of bronchitis

This list is not all-inclusive. Please see a doctor for any symptom that is severe or concerning.

Treatment

Acute bronchitis usually gets better on its own—without antibiotics. Antibiotics won’t help you get better if you have acute bronchitis.

When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you, and their side effects could still cause harm. Side effects can range from minor issues, like a rash, to very serious health problems, such as antibiotic-resistant infections and C. diff infection, which causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.

If you have whooping cough (pertussis) or pneumonia, which can have similar symptoms to acute bronchitis, your doctor will most likely prescribe antibiotics.
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How to Feel Better

Below are some ways you can feel better while your body fights off acute bronchitis:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
  • Use saline nasal spray or drops to relieve a stuffy nose.
    • For young children, use a rubber suction bulb to clear mucus.
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.
  • Suck on lozenges. Do not give lozenges to children younger than 4 years of age.
  • Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least 1 year of age or older.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines that can help you feel better. Always use over-the-counter medicines as directed. Remember, over-the-counter medicines may provide temporary relief of symptoms, but they will not cure your illness.

Over-the-Counter Medicine and Children

Be careful about giving over-the-counter medicines to children. Not all over-the-counter medicines are recommended for children of certain ages.

  • Pain relievers:
    • Children younger than 6 months: only give acetaminophen.
    • Children 6 months or older: it is OK to give acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
    • Never give aspirin to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but very serious illness that harms the liver and brain.
  • Cough and cold medicines:
    • Children younger than 4 years old: do not use unless a doctor specifically tells you to. Use of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in young children can result in serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.
    • Children 4 years or older: discuss with your child’s doctor if over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are safe to give to your child for temporary symptom relief.

Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist about the right dosage of over-the-counter medicines for your child’s age and size. Also, tell your child’s doctor and pharmacist about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines they are taking.

Prevention

You can help prevent acute bronchitis by doing your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy, including:

  • Clean your hands.
  • Get recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.