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Bronchitis - What is bronchitis?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


Bronchitis (a cough) can make your chest hurt, and the coughing can disturb your sleep. Bronchitis usually gets better on its own within a week or two, but you should see a doctor if you're worried about your symptoms.

We've brought together the best research about bronchitis and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

If you have bronchitis, the lining of the airways in your lungs gets inflamed. This makes you cough. Almost all cases of bronchitis are caused by infection with a virus.

Bronchitis doesn't tend to be serious for people who are normally healthy. It usually goes away on its own, even without treatment. But if your symptoms are very bad, your doctor may want to do tests to make sure you don't have a more serious illness, such as pneumonia.

Bronchitis that lasts up to three weeks is called acute bronchitis.[1] If your symptoms last more than three weeks, your doctor might say you have persistent bronchitis. If you cough up mucus every day for at least three months, two years in a row, it's called chronic bronchitis.[1]

This information covers acute bronchitis.

There are lots of different viruses that can cause bronchitis. Doctors think flu (influenza) viruses are one of the most common causes.[1] Cold viruses can also lead to bronchitis.[2] Bronchitis often starts as you're just getting over another illness, such as flu.

lungs_default.jpgViruses spread easily from one person to another. For example, you can breathe in viruses when you stand next to someone who has just coughed. As your body fights off the virus, it makes the lining of your lungs' airways get inflamed and coated with mucus. This causes the symptoms of bronchitis. Bacteria rarely cause bronchitis.[2]

Some other things can damage the lining of your lungs and lead to bronchitis. For example, breathing in a lot of chemical fumes or smoke from a fire.[2]

Air pollution can also trigger bronchitis, especially if you already have another condition that affects your heart or lungs.[3] Dust from farming, mining, and working with stone can lead to bronchitis. However, it usually takes many years for this type of lung damage to happen. It usually causes long-lasting (chronic) bronchitis, not acute bronchitis.

If you smoke, you're more likely to get chronic bronchitis.[4][5] But researchers aren't sure if smoking increases your chances of getting a bout of acute bronchitis. To read more about chronic bronchitis, see Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Children under 4 years old and older people are most likely to get bronchitis, especially if they already have other health problems that affect their lungs and heart.[6]

Last Updated: October 22, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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