Is Bronchitis Contagious?

January 19, 2016

Is Bronchitis Contagious? - Texas MedClinic Urgent Care

People often ask, “Is bronchitis contagious?”

The short answer is “Yes it can be,” but before answering this question, it is important to understand exactly what bronchitis is, the two different kinds, symptoms, when to go to the doctor, and treatment.


What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes. They can become inflamed or infected by viruses, bacteria and other irritant particles. When this occurs, the membrane swells and grows thicker and it narrows or shuts off the tiny airways in the lungs. This condition reduces the ability to breathe in air and oxygen into the lungs. Patients also can have heavy mucus or phlegm forming in the airways.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.

  • Acute Bronchitis
    Acute bronchitis is usually viral in origin, but sometimes it is caused by bacteria, and it typically lasts from one to three weeks. Those who are in otherwise good health, the mucus membrane should return to normal after recovery from the initial lung infection, which lasts for several days.
  • Chronic Bronchitis
    Chronic bronchitis is a serious long-term disorder that often requires regular medical treatment. The chronic form can last at least 3 months of the year for two years in a row.

People with asthma may also may have asthmatic bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes.

It is much harder to recover from chronic bronchitis, and smokers are highly susceptible. Every cigarette damages the cilia, the tiny hair-like structures in the lungs that are responsible for brushing out debris, irritants and excess mucus. In some heavy smokers, the cilia eventually stop functioning since the mucus membrane lining the airways stays inflamed. Clogged with mucus, the lungs then are vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections, which over time permanently damage the lungs airways. This permanent condition is called COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic bronchitis is one of two main types of COPD. The other main form is emphysema. Both conditions make it difficult to breathe.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

  • Coughing Spells – Coughing is the most prevalent symptom of bronchitis. They are usually short and weak though frequent.
  • Phlegm – Typically, the hacking cough is accompanied by phlegm production. It usually begins to appear after 24 to 48 hours following the onset of coughing. It may be white, yellow or green, and in very severe cases, it may be streaked with red blood, too.
  • Chest Discomfort – Patients often complain of discomfort in the chest area. Some experience constriction and heaviness, while others feel pain below the breastbone on taking deep breaths.
  • Breathlessness – This symptom may also be experienced by bronchitis patients. It is usually in the more severe cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated state of chronic bronchitis that this occurs.
  • Difficulty in Breathing – While breathlessness usually is triggered by exertion or prolonged coughing, difficulty in breathing implies an enduring impediment to taking in air. This usually occurs in patients of chronic bronchitis, whose bronchial airways are majorly blocked.
  • Wheezing – A common symptom of both acute and chronic bronchitis is wheezing. This can be characterized by a whistling sound on exhaling. It is the constriction of the airways that causes this sound and while it is alarming to hear, it subsides as the coughing spells do.
  • Fever – Many patients, especially children, tend to get a low grade fever alongside other symptoms.
  • Chills–Chills are experienced in patients who also contract fever which is itself is not a typical symptom.
  • Runny Nose – This symptom is one found in children suffering from either form of bronchitis. They not only have cough and phlegm, but also liquid mucus running down their noses.
  • Fatigue – Patients often complain of fatigue. Though there is no particular reason for such tiredness, it is perhaps the exertion due to coughing.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Bronchitis can be contagious, but it depends upon which kind the patient has. Typically, those with acute bronchitis can be contagious while those with the chronic form are less likely to be able to spread it to someone else.

Acute bronchitis is contagious if it is caused by either a cold or flu viruses. Since these viruses are contagious, acute bronchitis usually is, too.These germs may be present in mucus that can be spread through coughing or sneezing.

How long will a patient be contagious? It depends on the type of virus. In most cases, the person will be contagious for a few days, and possibly as long as a week. Since the patient may not know what kind of illness he or she has — and doctors don’t test for individual viruses, since there are hundreds of them — it’s best to assume that one could spread the disease as long as cold symptoms are present.

Special care should be taken to avoid spreading the condition, including covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands frequently or using hand sanitizers. Getting a flu shot may reduce your risk of bronchitis caused by the flu.

When should you go see a doctor? 

A person should seek medical help if:

  • A persistent cough has lingered for more than 3 weeks. That can be a sign that you have chronic bronchitis, asthma, or another problem that needs regular medical care.
  • The cough is so uncomfortable or so hard that it is impossible to sleep.
  • The patient has a fever over 100.4 F.
  • You’re wheezing or feel like you can’t breathe.
  • There’s blood in the mucus you cough up, or you have other symptoms that seem unusual for a cold.


What is the treatment for bronchitis?

Texas MedClinic concurs with the philosophy of WebMD as follows:

Conventional treatment for acute bronchitis may consist of simple measures such as getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, avoiding smoke and fumes, and possibly getting a prescription for an inhaled bronchodilator and/or cough syrup. In some cases of chronic bronchitis, oral steroids to reduce inflammation and/or supplemental oxygen may be necessary.

In healthy people with bronchitis who have normal lungs and no chronic health problems, antibiotics are usually not necessary. In most cases, the cause is a virus and antibiotics will not help. A productive (phlegm-producing) cough may come with acute bronchitis. This is your body’s way of getting rid of excess mucus. However, if your cough is truly disruptive — it keeps you from sleeping, is so forceful it becomes painful, or it persists for two or three weeks — then your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant.

In most cases, you should simply do all the things you usually would do for a cold: Take aspirin or acetaminophen for discomfort and drink lots of liquids.

Do not give aspirin to a child under age 19 because of the increased risk of Reye’s syndrome.

If you have chronic bronchitis, your lungs are vulnerable to infections. Unless your doctor advises against it, get a yearly flu shot as well as a vaccination against pneumonia.  One dose of pneumonia vaccine, PPSV23, will help protect you from a common type of bacterial pneumonia until the age of 65.  At that time, you will likely need a different form of pneumonia shot followed by a booster of the PPSV23. You may need a booster sooner if you have certain other medical problems. Talk to your doctor about the schedule that is right for you.

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