Acute bronchitis is a common lower respiratory tract infection that may present similarly to the common cold. Because of these similarities, many people mistake acute bronchitis for a chest cold. The condition occurs when the bronchi — the airways to the lungs — become inflamed. Acute infection may last one to six weeks, though chronic infection is possible. In many instances, an upper respiratory tract infection such as the common cold may precede acute bronchitis.
Bronchitis can be associated with a productive cough, though this symptom is often not present. Almost 90% of acute bronchitis cases develop due to viral infections. Mucus color is not a reliable method of differentiating viral from bacterial infection.
Because acute bronchitis often follows upper respiratory tract infections, it's normal for symptoms to overlap. Minor headaches, body aches, and chest pain are typical. The pain may get worse when taking a deep breath. Many people confuse the aches and pains of acute bronchitis for a sore throat, another symptom that often precedes acute bronchitis.
If acute bronchitis has a signature symptom, it's a cough. This cough may or may not produce mucus. A cough due to acute bronchitis can outlast the infection itself and can take several weeks to clear.
Although rare, acute bronchitis can cause a fever. In most cases, the fever does not exceed 100 degrees F. However, if the condition is severe enough, temperatures can reach 102 degrees. Doctors may worry that fevers indicate a more serious underlying condition, such as pneumonia. Most fevers last for only a couple of days, though some may take up to five days to resolve. Chills can accompany a fever.
Because acute bronchitis involves airway inflammation, many people experience shortness of breath, which athletic individuals may notice more than less active people. A person is more likely to take note of shortness of breath during strenuous activities such as running or climbing stairs. Cold air triggers and aggravates it, as can powerful odors.
As with many illnesses, acute bronchitis can make people feel fatigued or generally low-energy. Extreme fatigue makes it more difficult to perform regular tasks. Some people with acute bronchitis may be bedridden for a short period.
Along with other respiratory symptoms, people with acute bronchitis often wheeze. Medically, wheezing is a high-pitched whistling noise that most often occurs when exhaling, as result of a narrowed airway. It may become more noticeable during deep breaths or when laughing.
Usually, acute bronchitis does not require antibiotic treatment, as it is a self-limiting illness most often caused by a virus. In the rare instance of a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Symptom treatment is typically sufficient; anti-inflammatory medications like Tylenol or aspirin can reduce fever, headache, and sore throat if present. If a person has other conditions, such as COPD, doctors may prescribe inhalers.
People with acute bronchitis should drink a lot of fluids. Because the condition causes significant amounts of mucus, the body rapidly loses fluids. People with fevers may sweat, which can also lower the amount of fluid in the body. In addition to counteracting these effects, staying hydrated can help loosen and dislodge some of the mucus.
One of the most beneficial things anyone with acute bronchitis can do is use a humidifier. Warm, wet air is the most effective way to clear mucus from the airways. However, dirty humidifiers are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria and can expel them into the air. Always follow the humidifier's cleaning instructions and perform regular maintenance.
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