Also called: Acute Bronchitis, Chronic Bronchitis

Reviewed By:
Timothy Yarboro, M.D.


Bronchitis is a disease of the respiratory system. It occurs when the air passages (bronchial tubes) leading from the trachea to the lungs become irritated or inflamed. This can be caused by viral infections such as a cold or the flu, or irritants such as tobacco smoke and industrial fumes.

There are two different types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis
  • Chronic bronchitis

These two types of bronchitis have different origins, symptoms, treatment and methods for prevention. Acute bronchitis is an infection that is usually treated with rest, liquids and over-the-counter medications. Chronic bronchitis is a feature of continually irritated airways and is common among smokers and workers exposed to environmental irritants. The best treatment for chronic bronchitis is avoiding exposure to the irritant by quitting smoking or wearing protective clothing (e.g., a mask) at work.

About bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes in the bronchial tubes, which connect the windpipe (trachea) to the lungs. It is a common disease that affects most people at some point in their life. There are two types of bronchitis: acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. Although the conditions are similar, acute bronchitis is more common and less severe than chronic bronchitis.

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes become irritated, either as the result of a viral infection such as influenza (the flu) or because of environmental irritants such as smoke or fumes. This causes the bronchial tubes to swell and produce thick mucus, which lines the tubes. This mucus can block the airways and make it difficult to breath. Bronchitis is characterized by the presence of a persistent cough, which may start as a dry cough but usually develops into a moist cough which produces yellow-green sputum. Severe bronchitis is also often accompanied by a high fever which can last several days.

Acute bronchitis is the type of bronchitis with which most people are familiar. It is a respiratory tract infection that generally resolves within several days or weeks. Acute bronchitis usually occurs after the body has been infected with a cold or the flu. Because the origin of acute bronchitis is usually viral, antibiotics are ineffective at treating the condition. However, antibiotics are often still prescribed for acute bronchitis, making it a common reason for antibiotic abuse. Acute bronchitis is contagious.

Chronic bronchitis is usually related to smoking or other environmental irritants of the airways. It includes a moist cough and an overproduction of mucus. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis usually reoccur until the cause of the condition (e.g., cigarette smoke, occupational irritants) is identified and removed. Chronic bronchitis is defined by the presence of a mucus–producing cough most days of the month for at least three months of the year, for two successive years without any other underlying disease to explain the cough.

Chronic bronchitis is often linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD refers to chronic, progressive diseases of the lungs, such as emphysema, that reduce airflow over time. COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

People with chronic bronchitis can sometimes experience a temporary worsening of their condition that produces symptoms similar to acute bronchitis. This is called acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis (AECB). Repeated bouts of acute bronchitis should be taken seriously. They may signal lung disorders like chronic bronchitis or asthma, or other conditions such as postnasal drip syndrome or gastroesophageal reflux disorder. Chronic bronchitis is also reported to increase the risk of lung cancer. Anyone who suspects they may have a form of bronchitis should contact a physician for a medical evaluation.

Scroll to Top