Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Bronchitis can be defined as an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. Bronchitis can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms including a nasty cough that brings up mucus, shortness of breath, wheezing, a low-grade fever and chest pain or discomfort.[1] But is bronchitis contagious? That depends on which type you have.

Two Main Types of Bronchitis?

There are two main types of bronchitis, acute (short-term) and chronic (ongoing):
acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, bronchitis
Acute Bronchitis
Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly and usually resolves itself after 3 to 10 days (but the cough and mucus production can last up to several weeks).[2] The same viruses that cause the common cold or flu are responsible for up to 95% of all cases of acute bronchitis.[3] These viruses are easily spread through the air when people cough or sneeze or through physical contact making acute bronchitis especially contagious. Acute bronchitis can also be caused by bacteria or by breathing in lung irritants such as tobacco smoke, fumes, dust or air pollution.2  Avoiding exposure to lung irritants such as these can help lower your risk of acute bronchitis.1

Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis is among a group of lung diseases known as COPD. It is an ongoing, serious illness for which there is no cure. Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis is not contagious and is usually caused by long-term, repeated exposure to tobacco smoke.1 Like other types of COPD, people with chronic bronchitis have periods of time when their condition is stable and periods of time when their symptoms worsen, usually due to exposure to viruses or bacteria that can infect and further irritate the bronchial tubes.1 Repeated exposure to air pollution and dust or fumes from the environment or workplace can also lead to chronic bronchitis.

Treatment of Bronchitis

The primary goals of treatment in acute or chronic bronchitis are to relieve symptoms and improve breathing:

Treatment of Acute Bronchitis
bronchitis treatment, acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, rest
Treatment of acute bronchitis usually consists of getting plenty of rest and fluids and taking aspirin (adults only) or acetaminophen to help reduce fever. Most cases of acute bronchitis will clear up on their own within 3 to 10 days. It’s important to note that antibiotics are ineffective in treating acute bronchitis caused by viruses – the most common cause of acute bronchitis – and are reserved for cases of acute bronchitis that are caused by bacteria.1

Using a humidifier or breathing in steam from a hot shower can help loosen thick secretions making them easier to cough up. If you experience wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaled medication to help open up your airways making it easier to breathe. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help relieve your cough or reduce the inflammation in your airways.1

Treatment of Chronic Bronchitis
Smoking cessation remains the most important factor in the treatment and prevention of chronic bronchitis.1  If you smoke, talk to your doctor about medications to help you quit smoking.

Additional treatment options for chronic bronchitis include:[4]

  • Bronchodilators – help relax and widen the airways making it easier to breath. Bronchodilators are usually administered through an inhaler, but are sometimes given in pill form (for example, theophylline).
  • Corticosteroids (inhaled or oral) – commonly referred to as steroids. Help reduce swelling and inflammation in the airways, which also improves breathing.
  • Oxygen therapy – for chronic bronchitis accompanied by low levels of oxygen in the blood. Helps prolong life (when used more than 15 hours a day) and relieve shortness of breath while giving you more energy to complete activities of daily living.
  • Antibiotics – for periods of exacerbation when symptoms of chronic bronchitis worsen due to a bacterial infection.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) Inhibitors – a relatively new class of drug that reduces inflammation by blocking PDE4, an enzyme that’s overproduced in people with COPD and asthma. PDE4 inhibitors help reduce COPD exacerbations in people with chronic bronchitis.
  • Vaccinations – people with chronic bronchitis should get an influenza (flu) vaccine every year to help reduce the risk of exacerbation and a pneumonia vaccine every 5 to 7 years to help prevent pneumococcal pneumonia.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – a formal program that includes education, nutritional counseling, breathing techniques, exercise and more. Because regular physical activity can improve a patient’s overall health and well-being, pulmonary rehabilitation is recommended for people with chronic bronchitis who feel unable to perform regular exercise on their own.
  • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) – a type of lung surgery during which small sections of damaged lung tissue are removed. Limited to a small percentage of patients who meet very strict criteria.

This article hopes to answer the question Is Bronchitis Contagious? For more information about acute and chronic bronchitis, talk to your primary health care provider.

[1] National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. What is Bronchitis? Updated August 4, 2011.

[2] American Lung Association. Learn About Acute Bronchitis. Accessed May 6, 2017.

[3] Worrall, G. (2008). Acute bronchitis. Canadian Family Physician54(2), 238–239.

[4] From the Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management and Prevention of COPD, Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) 2017. Available from: http://goldcopd.org.

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