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What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis (bron-KI-tis) is a condition in which the bronchial tubes, the tubes that carry air to your lungs, become inflamed. (For more information on the bronchial tubes and the airways, see the “How the Lungs Work” article.)

People who have bronchitis often have a cough that brings up mucus. Mucus is a slimy substance made by the lining of the bronchial tubes. Bronchitis also may cause wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe), chest pain or discomfort, a low fever, and shortness of breath.

There are two main types of bronchitis: acute (short term) and chronic (ongoing).

Acute Bronchitis

Infections or other factors that irritate the lungs cause acute bronchitis. The same viruses that cause colds and the flu often cause acute bronchitis. These viruses are spread through the air when people cough. They also are spread through physical contact (for example, on hands that have not been washed). Sometimes bacteria cause acute bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis lasts from a few days to 10 days. However, the cough that occurs may last for several weeks after the infection is gone.

Several factors increase the risk for acute bronchitis. Examples include tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke), air pollution, dust, and fumes. Avoiding these lung irritants as much as possible can help lower your risk for acute bronchitis.

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away within a few days. If you think you have acute bronchitis, see your doctor. He or she will want to rule out other, more serious health conditions that need medical care.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing, serious condition. It occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes is constantly irritated and inflamed.

Bronchitis is “chronic” if you have a cough with mucus on most days for at least 3 months a year and 2 years in a row (without another apparent cause). Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis.

Viruses or bacteria can easily infect the irritated bronchial tubes. When this happens, the condition worsens and lasts longer. As a result, people who have chronic bronchitis also have periods when symptoms get much worse than usual.

Chronic bronchitis is a serious, long-term medical condition. Early diagnosis and treatment, combined with quitting cigarette smoking and avoiding secondhand cigarette smoke, can help people live better with this condition. The chance of complete recovery is low for people who have severe chronic bronchitis

Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute