What Is Acute Bronchitis?

Acute Bronchitis is often erroneously treated with antibiotics when it is typically caused by a virus. Learn what it is and how you can best treat it.

Sanaz Majd, MD
4-minute read
Episode #209

If you’ve been following the news in the recent 1-2 months, you’ve learned that the flu season has spiked much later than usual this year. The cold and flu viruses are, in fact, rampant at the moment in March. These nasty viruses can make you feel quite ill—as much if not more, than a bacterial illness.

On the House Call Doctor podcast, one of my missions is to shed light on medical myths. With unreliable medical information on the Internet, it’s important to delineate fact from fiction when it comes to your health.

So today, I’d like to focus on one of the greatest myths of the cold and flu season: acute bronchitis. If I only had a dollar for every time I encounter a request for antibiotics for an “acute bronchitis” diagnosis, I could likely give up my day job ...

So let’s understand what acute bronchitis really is, and how it can be treated.

What Is Acute Bronchitis?

If you listen to my podcast regularly, you know that anything that ends in “-itis” refers to inflammation.  And “bronch” refers to the “bronchi,” large tubes that carry oxygen in the upper regions of the lungs. Therefore, “bronchitis” simply means inflammation of these upper airway bronchi. 

The word “acute” distinguishes it from “chronic bronchitis,” a separate medical condition that is often experienced by smokers with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), causing inflammation of these bronchi on a daily and chronic basis. Not fun.

Against popular belief, acute bronchitis is actually caused by viruses, not bacteria. The common cold or flu virus is notorious for causing inflammation of these bronchi. 

Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

Those with acute bronchitis often catch the common cold or flu virus initially. I’ve discussed these two bugs in great detail previously, along with how to determine the difference between the two if you wish to learn more. Those with acute bronchitis often report the following nasty viral symptoms.

Cough: In patients with acute bronchitis, when the typical cold or flu symptoms abate (typically within 7-10 days), the cough tends to persist. In fact, it can persist for up to three weeks or more. 

Wheezing: In addition, because the upper airways are inflamed, it can also cause wheezing. This happens as air flows through these tubes with an inflamed and thickened lining, and makes a whistling noise as you exhale. Asthmatics also often wheeze, so if you suffer from asthma, it’s important to distinguish this from an asthma flare up.

Mucus: In addition, it’s very common for those with acute bronchitis to complain of coughing up phlegm or mucus that can be clear, white, yellow, or green. Another common myth busted: green phlegm does not reflect a bacterial infection. After all, what color are boogers? 

Now that you know a little more about the symptoms, let's find out how to treat acute bronchitis ...


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.