Is bronchitis contagious? What you need to know

Doctor's advice, Tips for parents / Sanitas Medical Center

Is bronchitis contagious? What you need to know

What is “chest cold”?

Commonly called “chest cold”, acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways inside the lungs (named bronchial tubes, or bronchi), which causes swelling and mucus production. Your lungs try to get rid of that thick mucus by making you cough it up a lot, especially at night.

Acute bronchitis usually develops from a common cold, or other respiratory infection. Progression usually depends on your previous health status and habits, like smoking and level of physical activity. Acute bronchitis is a very common condition, especially when seasons change.

In people who are smokers, the lungs and bronchi always try to defend themselves from the irritation that tobacco (or other inhaled products) cause. So, they become permanently swollen to a point that it causes chronic bronchitis, which is a serious and usually irreversible condition.

Chronic bronchitis is one of the features of a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that is usually caused by any type of cigarette smoke exposure, including second-hand exposure. However, chronic bronchitis can be due to causes other than tobacco or vaping, like air contamination.

How long does bronchitis last?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus which first affects the ear, nose or throat. It starts with the common symptoms of a viral infection like fatigue, headache or body aches, and also respiratory symptoms such as coughing, chest soreness, watery eyes and sore throat. Cough can be with or without mucus production.

Specific viruses can cause acute bronchitis. Influenza viruses, which cause the flu, can produce chest cold. COVID-19 disease can manifest as bronchitis as well. This is why you should get vaccinated against these diseases as soon as possible, as they can produce complications and lead to death.

Bacteria can also cause acute bronchitis. Other causes of bronchitis include exposure to physical or chemical agents such as dusts, fumes like those found in cleansing compounds, and of course, tobacco or vaping smoke.

Most symptoms of a chest cold usually last for 10 to 14 days (a maximum of 3 weeks), although the coughing can last even up to 8 weeks in some people. It lasts until the lungs recover from the initial injury. If you smoke, it might take a little more for your lungs to recover, and they will not achieve a full recovery. Chronic bronchitis usually lasts longer, and if you don’t avoid exposure to toxic or irritant inhaled substances, it can last forever.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Anyone can catch a chest cold. A normal adult can have from 2 to 3 episodes of a common cold every year, and any of these can easily turn into a self-limited acute bronchitis.

Since acute bronchitis is usually viral, it can be spread in the same ways that colds and flu are. This is, by tiny droplets of saliva we produce when we speak, cough, wheeze or sneeze. If you are close enough to someone who has bronchitis, and they have no protection, these droplets might land in your mouth, nose or eyes, and infect you.

This is why it is important for people with respiratory illnesses to keep social distancing from others, use face masks and regularly wash their hands. You can never be sure how your body and the others’ body will behave when catching a respiratory illness; therefore, you should take preventive actions for your safety and the ones around you.

Chronic bronchitis is usually not due to infectious agents, but to exposure to substances that harm your airways. This makes chronic bronchitis not contagious among population. On the other hand, people with chronic bronchitis are at a higher risk of catching airway infections, which may become severe.

Is there a vaccine against bronchitis?

Many acute bronchitis are viral, and there are vaccines that have been developed for the most infectious and mortal viruses. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend to vaccinate against the virus that causes the flu (influenza virus), and to vaccinate against the virus that causes COVID-19. This is the best way to prevent some severe forms of bronchitis, which are mostly caused by these two viruses.

Should I take antibiotics to treat acute bronchitis?

Antibiotics are chemical substances that are directed against bacterial agents. Since acute bronchitis is mainly viral, and antibiotics are not effective against viruses, they are not recommended for the management of it. Only licensed doctors should prescribe you antibiotics, and in case you are prescribed one, you should take it the way your doctor indicates it to diminish the possibility of bacteria becoming resistant or having adverse effects.

If antibiotics are not recommended, how is acute bronchitis treated?

General measures are always useful in the management of acute bronchitis. These include the following:

  • Use a clean humidifier at home
  • Use saline nasal spray or drops to relieve a stuffy nose
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water
  • If you smoke, avoid doing it (take this as an opportunity to quit)
  • Avoid exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Get quality and restful sleep

In any case, you should check with your doctor which of these recommendations apply to your individual case, and if there are additional recommendations you should follow for a faster recovery. Remember that not all recommendations may apply to everyone.

Can acute bronchitis be complicated?

Acute bronchitis rarely causes complications in people that are healthy and do not smoke. Symptoms usually resolve on their own, and the lungs go back to their normal functioning after full recovery.

Rare cases of bronchitis may complicate and develop pneumonia. You should seek for medical care if you develop the following symptoms:

  • Temperature of 100.4°F or higher
  • Cough with bloody mucous
  • Shortness of breath or trouble with breathing
  • Symptoms prevent you from sleeping
  • Symptoms that last more than 3 weeks
  • Recurrent symptoms of bronchitis
  • Chest pain

These cases will be addressed by doctors individually. However, these list of symptoms is not all-inclusive. If any of your symptoms is severe or worsening, you should seek medical attention.

At Sanitas, we are concerned for your wellbeing and health. Our doctors are always happy to give you advice on how to prevent diseases for your own individual condition. If you feel your cold is becoming worse, or you have any concerning symptoms, you can always use our Urgent Care services for you most immediate needs. At Sanitas, we take care to our heart!