Chest infections (bronchitis)

There are different types of chest infections, ranging from the simple acute bronchitis that comes on with a cold, to more serious infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. This page tells you about acute bronchitis.

Summary

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic.

Acute bronchitis is very common. It often develops from a cold or other respiratory infection. Chronic bronchitis is a more serious condition, involving a constant irritation or inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, often due to smoking.

Signs a chest infection is more serious

If you or a family member is short of breath, coughing up blood, has a high fever or feels very unwell you need to see your doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 straight away. These can be symptoms of pneumonia, where the infection has gone deep into your lungs, or other serious conditions like tuberculosis or lung cancer.

This topic sheet was provided by Healthline.

Symptoms

At first, bronchitis usually affects your nose, sinuses and throat. Then it spreads to the airways leading to your lungs.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:

  • chest discomfort
  • cough that produces mucus (clear or yellow-green)
  • fatigue
  • fever – usually low-grade
  • shortness of breath that gets worse with activity
  • wheezing, especially if you also have asthma.

Even after acute bronchitis has cleared, you may have a dry, nagging cough that lingers for up to 4 weeks.

At times it may be hard to know whether you have pneumonia or only bronchitis. If you have pneumonia, you are more likely to have a high fever and chills, feel sicker or feel short of breath.

When to see your doctor

See your doctor if you:

  • have a cough on most days, or you have a cough that often returns
  • are coughing up blood
  • have a high fever or shaking chills
  • have a low-grade fever for 3 or more days
  • are coughing up thick, greenish mucus, especially if it has a bad smell
  • feel short of breath or have chest pain
  • also have a chronic illness, like heart or lung disease.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Treatment

Most people do not need antibiotics for acute bronchitis. However, if your doctor thinks you also have a bacterial infection in your airways along with the bronchitis virus, you may need to take antibiotics.

Self-care

Bronchitis will almost always go away on its own within 1 week. These tips will help you cope with the symptoms.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If you have asthma or another chronic lung condition, use your inhaler (such as salbutamol).
  • Rest as much as you can.
  • Take aspirin or paracetamol if you have a fever. Do not give aspirin to children.
  • Use a humidifier or breathe steam in the bathroom.
  • Do not smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution.

Some medicines can help break up or loosen mucus. Ask your pharmacist for help in choosing the right medicine.

If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways if you are wheezing.

Prevention

  • Avoiding people with coughs and colds will help reduce the risk of getting bronchitis. If you have a cough, cover your mouth with your sleeve when you cough to reduce the risk of passing it on. Hand washing also reduces the risk of passing on infections.
  • Not smoking will reduce the risk of bronchitis.
  • If you have asthma, make sure you follow your doctor’s instructions to keep it under control.

Immunisation

Being immunised against the flu will decrease the risk of bronchitis from influenza. Flu immunisation is available free from your doctor if you are aged 65 and over, or if you have certain ongoing health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma or diabetes. Visit Fight Flu for more information.

Pneumococcal vaccination can decrease the risk of bacterial secondary infection, and is recommended for people aged 65 and over. Visit Pneumococcal disease for more information.

Support to stop smoking

If you are a smoker and would like help to stop, call Quitline on 0800 778 778 or go to the Quitline website.

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