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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Bronchitis is an infection or inflammation of the bronchi, which are the largest airways of the lungs. These airways have a protective mechanism built into them where they produce mucus, which is meant to trap anything that is not welcome in the airways and that could be harmful to the lungs.

When someone has bronchitis, something has irritated the airways, causing increased production of mucus. This leads to the body trying to get rid of the mucus, and causes a productive cough.

Bronchitis can be short term (acute) or longer term (chronic). Acute bronchitis lasts around three weeks and is most commonly caused by a viral infection. The definition of chronic bronchitis is a chronic cough with mucus production for at least three months in two successive years when other causes have been excluded.

Chronic bronchitis is a chronic inflammatory condition in the lungs that causes the respiratory passages to be swollen and irritated. It also increases mucus production and may damage the lungs. The symptoms are coughing and breathlessness, which will get worse over the years.

When lung damage results in airflow restriction, the term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is used. Smoking is the most important cause of chronic bronchitis. Other things that make it worse are air pollution and allergy. The seriousness of the disease depends on how much and for how long a person has been smoking.

Doctor’s advice

Is it contagious?

Acute bronchitis can be caused by infections that may be contagious, but the condition itself is not contagious.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

If your cough is a chesty cough, where you're bringing up mucus and it sounds rattly or loose, or a dry tickly cough, there are different treatments that are worth trying.

For chesty coughs, treatment with a cough mixture containing guaifenesin or herbal alternatives containing marshmallow and thyme extract may help to help loosen and expel excess mucus to clear the chest.

For a dry tickly cough at the back of the throat that is particularly troublesome and frequent, then a product with glycerol can help. It works by coating the back of the throat to relieve the sensation to cough, and does not generally cause drowsiness. Another option is to use a cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan which can help to reduce the frequency of cough.

If you have asthma or other lung conditions then you should always ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice, as some medications could make the chest tighter, or make the asthma or wheeziness worse.

Acetaminophen can be used to relieve mild fever and pain.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any worrying symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fever or feeling severely unwell, seek urgent medical advice.

If you have had a cough for more than three weeks, you should book an appointment to discuss this with your doctor. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you, and come up with the best next steps.

Am I fit for work?

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be fit for work.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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