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Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Bronchitis can be defined as an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are 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). This probably leaves you wondering, “Is acute bronchitis contagious, or is chronic bronchitis contagious?” Here are some differences between the two types of bronchitis and some explanation about what makes bronchitis contagious.

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. This is why acute bronchitis is especially contagious. Acute bronchitis can also be caused by certain 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] If you have wondered, “Is acute bronchitis contagious?” the answer depends on what caused that particular case of acute bronchitis. However, since most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a virus, the answer is generally yes.

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. If you want to know exactly how long is acute bronchitis contagious, know that you could be contagious for up to a week. Essentially, as long as you have cold or flu symptoms, you could spread your bronchitis to others. As such, when it comes to treatment, you should also consider how you will prevent your germs from spreading to others. Make sure you cover your sneezes and coughs, and wash your hands frequently – especially before touching shared surfaces. Here is how your doctor will likely recommend you treat your case of bronchitis.

Treatment of Acute Bronchitis
bronchitis treatment, acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, rest

The majority of cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own, so treatment of acute bronchitis usually consists of getting plenty of rest and fluids and taking aspirin (adults only), ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce pain and fever. Using a humidifier or breathing in steam from a hot shower can help loosen thick secretions in your airways, making them easier to cough up. If you experience wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaled medication, called a bronchodilator, to help open up your airways and make it easier to breathe. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help relieve your cough or reduce the inflammation in your airways.[1]

Most cases of acute bronchitis will clear up within 10 days or less, but until then, remember that the answer to “Is acute bronchitis contagious?” is almost always yes. It is 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] Unless you are given antibiotics, treat your bronchitis as though it is contagious until your symptoms resolve.

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 as soon as possible. You should also avoid other lung irritants, like air pollution and dust, to reduce chronic bronchitis flare-ups. Since viruses and bacteria can also cause your symptoms to become worse, avoid contact with people showing signs of a respiratory infection and wash your hands frequently after spending time in public.

Additional treatment options for chronic bronchitis include:[4]

  • Bronchodilators –This prescribed medication helps 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) –This medication is commonly referred to as steroids. It can help reduce swelling and inflammation in the airways, which also improves breathing.
  • Oxygen therapy –Often prescribed for chronic bronchitis accompanied by low levels of oxygen in the blood. Supplemental oxygen helps prolong life (when used more than 15 hours a day) and relieves shortness of breath, while giving you more energy to complete activities of daily living.
  • Antibiotics –Prescribed for periods of exacerbation when symptoms of chronic bronchitis worsen due to a bacterial infection.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) Inhibitors – This is a relatively new class of drug that reduces inflammation by blocking PDE4, an enzyme that is overproduced in people with COPD 
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) Inhibitors – This is a relatively new class of drug that reduces inflammation by blocking PDE4, an enzyme that is overproduced in people with COPD and asthma. PDE4 inhibitors help reduce COPD exacerbations in people with chronic bronchitis.
  • Vaccinations – It is recommended that people with chronic bronchitis get an influenza (flu) vaccine every year to help reduce the risk of exacerbation, as well as a pneumonia vaccine every 5 to 7 years to help prevent pneumococcal pneumonia.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – This is a formal rehabilitation program that includes education, nutritional counseling, breathing and coughing techniques, physical 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) – This is 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.

If you have been diagnosed with bronchitis and have been wondering, “Is acute bronchitis contagious?” you now know that you should always treat a case of acute bronchitis as though it is contagious. Chronic bronchitis is a very different illness, but will require some of the same precautions to ensure you avoid exacerbations whenever possible.

If you have a case of bronchitis that lasts more than a few weeks after treatment, see your doctor. You may require antibiotics, or you may have the early stages of chronic bronchitis. For more information about acute and chronic bronchitis, talk to your primary health care provider. If you have chronic bronchitis and oxygen therapy is recommended for you, contact Inogen today to find more about how oxygen therapy could help treat your chronic bronchitis symptoms.

[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.

[5] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/expert-answers/acute-bronchitis/faq-20057839

[6] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355566

[7] https://www.webmd.com/lung/is-bronchitis-contagious#1

[8] https://www.webmd.com/lung/understanding-bronchitis-treatment#1

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