What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is the inflammation of the larger airways in your lungs, usually because of infection by a virus. The inflammation causes you to cough. Sometimes the inflammation is caused by bacteria, or breathing in smoke or dust.
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, such as cold viruses or influenza virus and can last for weeks, whereas chronic bronchitis lasts for months and may come back each year.
Chronic bronchitis is usually related to smoking.
Most people with acute bronchitis will feel better with time and rest, with a number of treatments available to help ease the cough and other symptoms.
If you think you have bronchitis, your doctor can assess you and discuss treatment.
What are the symptoms of bronchitis?
Someone with bronchitis may have:
- cough (either dry or bringing up phlegm)
- aches and pains
- feeling short of breath
- chest tightness
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our colds and flu Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
Who is at risk of developing bronchitis?
People at risk include:
- the elderly
- people breathing in irritating chemicals
- those with a lung condition, such as asthma
- people with poor immunity
- people who haven’t been vaccinated against influenza, pneumococcal disease or whooping cough
Is bronchitis contagious?
Mostly, bronchitis is caused by contagious viruses. These can be spread by air when someone coughs, or by touch after the virus is left on a surface.
Hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing and staying home while unwell can reduce the spread.
Do I need a chest x-ray?
An x-ray is usually not necessary. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommend that chest x-rays for bronchitis are best avoided for simple cases. For more information, speak to your doctor or visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
How is bronchitis treated?
Most people with acute bronchitis will feel better with time and rest. Bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, so antibiotics won’t help. Antibiotics do not kill viruses.
The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (the Commission) has developed a guide which can be used with your doctor to help you decide whether to use antibiotics when you or your child has acute bronchitis.
You can help ease the cough and other symptoms by:
- inhaling steam or having a warm bath
- avoiding cigarette smoke and other irritants
- drinking plenty of fluids
- simple pain relief medication, such as paracetamol (follow the directions on the label)
- a teaspoon of honey at night, either by itself or in warm water (but don’t give honey to children under 12 months)
Cough medicines are available, but they might or might not help.
If you are very unwell or not getting better, or if you get worse, see your doctor.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: January 2020