March 19, 2019

Are Acute and Chronic Bronchitis Contagious?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that bring air to the lungs. Is it contagious? That depends on which of two types of the condition a person has: acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis is contagious. It’s typically caused by the same type of virus responsible for the common cold and can be contracted in the same ways. This includes breathing in particles that become airborne when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes or picking up particles from surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

Acute bronchitis can also be caused by bacteria. This form of the condition is more likely to occur in smokers and people who have a weakened immune system. In some cases, acute bronchitis can result from inhaling dust, fumes, air pollution or tobacco smoke.

Regardless of the cause, acute bronchitis produces:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Excessive mucus production
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chest discomfort or tightness
  • Low-grade fever
  • Chills

After you’ve been exposed to a virus, it’s typically 4-6 days before you begin to have symptoms of acute bronchitis. In many cases, people feel fatigued and have a runny nose, sore throat or headache just before the full onset of the illness.

Chronic bronchitis isn’t contagious. This condition is the result of long-term exposure to substances that irritate the lining of the bronchial tubes such as cigarette smoke, airborne dust or air pollution. If exposure to irritants is eliminated, chronic bronchitis will subside. However, if the substance is encountered again, the condition will return.

Prevention and Treatment of Bronchitis

Preventing acute viral or bacterial bronchitis involves the same steps as avoiding the common cold, including:

  • Avoiding people who are sick
  • Getting a flu shot annually
  • Washing your hands frequently with warm, soapy water
  • Avoiding touching your mouth, nose or eyes with dirty hands
  • Not sharing food or beverages with someone who’s sick

Chronic bronchitis can be prevented (and “treated”) by not smoking and avoiding environments with dust or pollution in the air.

Since viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, the treatment for acute viral bronchitis is simply to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and use over-the-counter medication, as directed, to address symptoms. The condition tends to resolve in a few weeks, although the cough may remain somewhat longer even though you’re no longer sick or contagious. If you have acute bacterial bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe medication to lessen your symptoms and prevent complications.

Acute bronchitis can lead to other problems like pneumonia. You should contact your doctor if you feel especially ill or experience any of these symptoms:

  • Cough that lasts more than three weeks
  • Sneezing or coughing up bloody or discolored mucus
  • Fever higher than 100.4 degrees
  • Ongoing shortness of breath or wheezing that limits your activities

Your doctor may perform an exam and order a chest x-ray to determine why the condition is causing these symptoms or isn’t resolving on its own. For convenient care, Baptist Health Urgent Care clinics are located throughout Kentucky and Indiana. When seeing your doctor isn’t possible, explore our Virtual Care options or drop in at a Baptist Health Urgent Care without an appointment, even weekends and evenings.  Our walk-in clinics can save you time and cost considerably less than an emergency room (ER) visit.

Learn More.