Short-term inflammation of the airways, most often due to a viral infection
In otherwise healthy adults, acute bronchitis may develop as a complication of respiratory infection. It is a recurrent problem for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, who often have several episodes each winter. In acute bronchitis, the lining of the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs), becomes inflamed, often due to infection. The inflammation produces a large amount of mucus, which is usually coughed up as sputum. In adults who are otherwise well, acute bronchitis does not usually cause permanent damage, but in older people or those who have a heart or lung disorder, infection may spread further into the lungs, causing pneumonia.
Acute bronchitis is often caused by a viral infection, such as a common cold that has spread from the nose, throat, or sinuses. Smokers, people who have an existing lung disorder, or those who are exposed to high levels of air pollution are more prone to attacks.
The symptoms of acute bronchitis usually develop quickly over 24–48 hours and may include the following:
Irritating, persistent cough that produces clear sputum.
Central chest pain on coughing.
Tightness of the chest and wheezing.
If you have a long-term heart or lung disease and develop the above symptoms, or if you cough up discoloured sputum, indicating a secondary infection, contact your doctor promptly. If you have a reserve supply of antibiotics, take them as instructed by your doctor.
In a person who is otherwise in good health, acute bronchitis caused by a viral infection usually clears up within a few days. Taking an over-the-counter painkiller, such as paracetamol, may help to bring down your temperature. If you smoke, give up immediately.
If your doctor suspects that you have developed a secondary bacterial infection, he or she will probably prescribe antibiotics. You should make a full recovery within 2 weeks of starting treatment. If acute bronchitis persists, your doctor may arrange for you to have additional investigations, such as a chest X-ray, to look for an underlying lung disorder.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.