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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Acute bronchitis (chest infection)

Pūkahukahu hauā ohotata (matenga poho)

Acute bronchitis is the most common type of chest infection.

Bronchitis is an infection in the large airways in your lungs, called bronchi. Acute means it comes on quickly and doesn't last long.

In acute bronchitis your bronchi are infected and become inflamed and irritated, causing a cough and sometimes mucus (sputum or phlegm).

It's different from chronic (long-lasting) bronchitis, which may be part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and follows a cold or flu. This is what people mean when they say a cold has "gone to their chest".

It will usually get better on its own in around one to three weeks, although you may have a cough for several weeks because your airways are irritated.

Rarely, bronchitis turns into pneumonia, which is a more serious chest infection. This is more common in young children, older people, people with other health conditions and people who smoke.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

If you have bronchitis, you'll probably have:

If you have a high fever, shortness of breath or chest pain, or if you cough up blood or feel very unwell, see your GP as you may have a more serious condition such as pneumonia.

If you have a serious ongoing health condition, especially lung disease, and you get symptoms of bronchitis, you should see your GP for advice.

Treating acute bronchitis

The main treatments for acute bronchitis are rest and paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with fever, aches and pains. These will make you more comfortable while you get better.

As most bronchitis is caused by a virus (viral bronchitis), if you have healthy lungs, you do not need antibiotics. Antibiotics only work with bacteria, not with viruses.

Even if your bronchitis is caused by bacteria, antibiotics will only speed up your recovery by about half a day. And they might cause side effects such as a tummy upset or thrush, which could make you feel worse.

Self-care for acute bronchitis

You may choose to take cough medicine to help you sleep at night, but only if you aren't coughing up mucus (a dry cough). You shouldn't take cough suppressants if you're coughing up mucus (a productive or wet cough).

Read the information on self-care for colds in adults and children.

Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze, so you do not spread the infection to other people. Also, practise good hand hygiene.

Avoiding catching colds, not smoking and getting a flu vaccination will reduce your risk of getting bronchitis.

You should also keep up to date with COVID-19 booster vaccinations.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2021.

See also:

Colds and sinusitis

Flu (influenza)


Page reference: 160111

Review key: HIABP-160111