Acute vs. Chronic Bronchitis: Understanding the Differences

Bronchitis is a respiratory illness that causes inflammation of the tubes that carry air to the lungs—also known as the airways or bronchial tubes. When the airways become irritated, swollen and inflamed, less air is able to travel to and from the lungs and mucus begins to form in them. This generally causes an irritating cough that may be accompanied by shortness of breath, more mucus production and other bothersome symptoms.1

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. If you want to understand the difference between acute and chronic bronchitis, it is important to understand that the symptoms can be quite different for acute vs. chronic bronchitis. Read on to take a look at how these types of bronchitis differ.

Acute vs. Chronic: What Is the Difference Between the Types of Bronchitis?

Many people are unaware that there are different types of bronchitis. So, what is the difference between bronchitis and acute bronchitis? It is surprisingly simple: They are both names for acute bronchitis. However, chronic bronchitis is another type of bronchitis, and it is quite different. 

Acute bronchitis is very common and it is temporary. Symptoms usually begin 3 to 4 days after an upper respiratory infection and disappear after 2 or 3 weeks. Acute bronchitis symptoms can be bothersome, but they should resolve on their own, or in more severe cases, with inhaled medicine. 

In contrast, chronic bronchitis is recurring bronchitis, meaning it is ongoing and long-lasting. Once you have it, you will always have it. Chronic bronchitis is one of the two most common forms of COPD, and it is irreversible and is characterized by frequent recurrences. This is the primary difference between acute and chronic bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis is a permanent and progressive disease, while acute bronchitis will improve and go away.

Causes of Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is generally caused by a virus that begins in your respiratory system, but the infection can also be bacterial in nature. Many people wonder, “Can acute bronchitis become chronic?” One instance of acute bronchitis does not put you at risk, but repeated recurring bronchitis can put you at a higher risk. Over time, acute recurring bronchitis may lead to chronic bronchitis. If you smoke during an attack of acute bronchitis, recovery will be much more difficult and will take a great deal longer than if you do not smoke. Moreover, continuing to smoke further damages the tiny hair-like structures in your lungs (cilia) that are responsible for ridding your lungs of debris, airway irritants and excess mucus, thus increasing your risk for chronic bronchitis.[1]

The primary cause of chronic bronchitis is long-term cigarette smoking, but repeated exposure to dust, fumes, indoor and outdoor air pollution or other airway irritants also plays a key role in its development. Continuing to smoke when you have chronic bronchitis worsens symptoms and makes the disease progress at a much faster rate.[1] While smoking with both types of bronchitis guarantees a worsening condition, the primary difference between acute and chronic bronchitis is that you cannot recover from chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis vs. Chronic Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis symptoms[2] usually include:

  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • A sore chest
  • Absence of fever or low-grade fever

If your fever is greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and is accompanied by loss of appetite and generalized achiness, however, your symptoms may be caused by pneumonia, which means you will probably need antibiotics.

Chronic bronchitis symptoms, on the other hand, last much longer and recur frequently. While many acute bronchitis symptoms are similar to chronic bronchitis symptoms, people with chronic bronchitis symptoms have a mucus-producing cough most days of the month for at least three months out of the year two years in a row.[3] Other chronic bronchitis symptoms[2] may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue

As the airways become increasingly irritated, mucus production worsens and an irritating cough develops. Over time, chronic bronchitis symptoms cause the lining of the airways to thicken, scar tissue forms and airflow to and from the lungs becomes impaired. As mucus production increases, it begins to pool in the airways creating a perfect breeding ground for infections, which is why recurring bronchitis is a significant concern.[3]

Another difference between acute and chronic bronchitis is that chronic bronchitis can be dangerous, especially if it goes without proper treatment. These facts illustrate the seriousness of this chronic disease.[4] 

  • In 2016, more than 8.9 Americans were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, and almost 75% of the cases involved people over 45
  • Currently, women develop chronic bronchitis at almost twice the rate that men do in the United States
  • In 2016, there were 518 bronchitis-related deaths in the United States

If you have recurring bronchitis and are unsure of the impact that acute bronchitis vs. chronic bronchitis will have on your health, talk to your doctor about changes you can make in your lifestyle to improve your respiratory health.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is generally easy for your doctor to detect through a physical examination and description of your symptoms. During your physical exam, your doctor will listen to your lung sounds with a stethoscope; a rattling sound in your chest is usually indicative of acute bronchitis.3

Diagnosis of chronic bronchitis may include a chest X-ray, lung function tests and a measurement of the amount of oxygen in your blood. Tests such as these help your doctor determine how well your lungs are working and to what degree they are impaired.5

Treatment of Different Types of Bronchitis

Treatment for acute bronchitis vs. chronic bronchitis is different, so it is important to see your doctor to ensure you get the correct diagnosis and treatment for your particular case. If you tend to get recurring bronchitis, it is especially important to follow your doctor’s instructions to help minimize the potential of future lung damage.

Because acute bronchitis is generally the result of a respiratory virus, taking antibiotics will not provide a cure. Most of the time, drinking plenty of fluids, getting adequate rest and avoiding smoke and other airway irritants is the standard method of treatment while the virus runs its course. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may order a bronchodilator inhaler to help relax your airways and/or a prescription cough suppressant. They may also advise you to take aspirin or Tylenol to reduce any physical discomfort.3

Smoking cessation is the single most important aspect of treatment for chronic bronchitis to help prevent worsening symptoms. If you continue to smoke, your chronic bronchitis symptoms will continue to worsen quickly, and you will experience more and more trouble breathing. In addition to quitting smoking, your doctor may prescribe any of the following:3

  • Oral steroids to reduce inflammation
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors to suppress inflammation and prevent exacerbations
  • Bronchodilator inhalers to relax constricted airways
  • Supplemental oxygen to increase blood oxygen levels
  • Antibiotics (if a bacterial infection is present)
  • An annual flu shot
  • A pneumonia vaccine (depending upon your age, co-existing medical conditions and if you have had one in the past)
  • An expectorant (not a cough suppressant as coughing helps rid the airways of mucus)
  • Weight loss (reduces strain on the heart)

Prevention of Bronchitis

As mentioned previously, smoking cessation remains the single most important and successful aspect of treatment and prevention of chronic bronchitis. It will also help you prevent or recover more quickly from acute bronchitis.[3]

If you are like most people, you may find it difficult to quit on your own. Using a combination of stop smoking aids, support groups and counseling may increase the chances that you will quitand remain a nonsmoker—for good!

Additionally, it is important to avoid other lung irritants like secondhand smoke, household chemicals and air pollution to help minimize irritation. Stay in the cleanest air possible to avoid symptom flare-ups.

Preventing Exacerbations of Chronic Bronchitis

If you have chronic bronchitis, you may experience exacerbations, or periods of time when your symptoms worsen. Acute episodes such as these can be prevented, or reduced, by frequent hand washing, flu and pneumonia vaccines, avoiding people who are sick and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise program. Remember, when it comes to your health, an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure!

When prevention is not enough, you may need extra help treating chronic bronchitis. If so, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy to help you breathe easier. Supplemental oxygen can provide the extra oxygen you need to feel and function better each day. If you are struggling to breathe because of chronic bronchitis, talk to your doctor about whether oxygen therapy treatment can help you, and contact Inogen today to find out how our products can help you treat your chronic bronchitis symptoms with oxygen anytime, anywhere.

Frequently Asked Questions: Acute Bronchitis vs. Chronic Bronchitis

Which is worse: acute bronchitis vs. chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is significantly worse because it is a progressive and ongoing disease. Both acute and chronic bronchitis can cause debilitating fatigue and shortness of breath, but chronic bronchitis will continue to return year after year. Though the two types of bronchitis can have similar symptoms, the difference between acute and chronic bronchitis is that you will recover from acute bronchitis, while chronic bronchitis will not ever go permanently away. 

Can acute bronchitis become chronic?

Unfortunately, yes, it can over time. If you have recurring bronchitis, the repetition of the infection can eventually lead to chronic bronchitis down the road. If you have a tendency to get acute bronchitis frequently, it is likely that you smoke or are often exposed to other lung irritants. Talk to your doctor about how to make changes in your health and your life to help minimize the risk of developing chronic bronchitis. 

Why does my bronchitis keep coming back?

More than likely, you are being repeatedly exposed to an irritant that is causing the inflammation in your bronchial tubes. Very often, that irritant is cigarette smoke, so if you are a smoker, it is essential to quit. If you do not smoke, you may be experiencing repeated exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution or dust that is causing the irritation. If you have recurring bronchitis, see your doctor to ascertain what is causing the irritation and to make sure you do not have chronic bronchitis. 

Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN



1 WebMD. Understanding Bronchitis – the Basics. Reviewed at May 7, 2013.

2 WebMD. Symptoms of Bronchitis. Reviewed May 7, 2013.

3 American Lung Association. Understanding Chronic Bronchitis. Accessed January 28, 2014.


5 WebMD. Understanding Bronchitis – Diagnosis and Treatment. Reviewed May 7, 2013.


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