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So you’ve got a cough—one that you can’t seem to shake. No big deal, right? Not so fast—that cough might actually be a symptom of bronchitis.

Bronchitis is a pesky condition that can be acute (short-lived) or chronic (recurring/constant). It’s classified as inflammation of the bronchial tubes that transfer air to and from the lungs. It’s usually accompanied by thickened mucus that lives in your lungs—sounds like a blast, right?

Let’s take a look at the differences between chronic bronchitis and acute bronchitis, the symptoms of each, and the treatment options available to help sufferers find some relief.

Dr. Mike checking patient breathing with stethoscope

Dr. Mike checking a patient’s breathing at The Lung Docs.

Chronic Bronchitis vs. Acute Bronchitis

Bronchitis comes in two forms: chronic and acute. While symptoms may be the same with each, they’re two different conditions.

Acute Bronchitis

The onset of Acute bronchitis typically is a result of a prolonged or untreated cold or respiratory infection. Most cases of acute bronchitis clear up within a few days, but a bronchitis-related cough can last for several weeks after the infection is gone.

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by the same virus that brings colds and the flu. Sometimes bacteria can cause acute bronchitis, but this is rare. In addition to bronchitis coming from a viral infection, acute bronchitis can be caused by tobacco smoke, dust, air pollution, and other harmful fumes.

Chronic Bronchitis

Unlike acute bronchitis, which is often the result of a cold/infection, chronic bronchitis is a constant inflammation of the bronchial tubes and doesn’t clear up as easily as acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is most often caused by cigarette smoke, and it is one type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, for short). Long-term exposure to air pollution, dust, or toxic fumes can also result in chronic bronchitis.


Bronchitis Symptoms

Whether you’re suffering from acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis, your symptoms will likely be similar:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever or chills
  • Chest pain or discomfort
    NOTE: Chest pain and discomfort (pressure) can also be a warning sign of a heart attack/heart disease. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
  • Persistent cough (often accompanied by mucus, which can be white, green, clear, or yellow-gray)

In addition to these, you may experience mild cold symptoms with acute bronchitis.

Keep in mind that many of these symptoms can be signs of other health conditions, so having a thorough physician exam is always wise to ensure that you receive the best care for your situation.

You should see a doctor if you develop a cough that:

  • Produces blood
  • Produces discolored mucus
  • Disrupts your sleep
  • Lasts longer than 3 weeks
  • Comes with a fever of 100.4 degrees F or higher

Diagnosing Bronchitis

An acute bronchitis diagnosis might be difficult to make during the beginning of an illness. If you suspect you may have bronchitis, visit your physician and they will perform an examination that involves listening to your lungs while you breathe. Depending on their findings, they may order the following tests:

  • Chest x-ray
  • Pulmonary function test: this is when you blow into a device called a spirometer to measure how much air your lungs can hold, and how fast you can exhale air from them.
  • Sputum (mucus) tests: your physician may collect samples of mucus to see if your symptoms can be alleviated through medication.

Bronchitis Treatments

The type of bronchitis you have may affect what bronchitis treatments you receive.

Acute Bronchitis Treatments

Most cases of acute bronchitis are related to a viral illness, so antibiotics will not help. If your physician thinks your bronchitis was the result of a bacterial infection, however, they may prescribe an antibiotic.

Most of the time, acute bronchitis will clear up on its own. Your doctor might recommend medications to alleviate your symptoms:

  • Cough medicine
  • An inhaler to reduce any airway inflammation

Chronic Bronchitis Treatments

If you smoke, the best way to treat chronic bronchitis is to quit smoking because continued tobacco use will only damage the lungs further. Your physician will develop a chronic bronchitis treatment plan with the goal of relieving symptoms and further progressing the disease. These treatments may include:

  • Inhaled steroids
  • Antibiotics
  • Vaccines: annual flu vaccinations and semi-regular pneumonia vaccinations can help prevent you from contracting these diseases
  • Surgery
  • Bronchodilator medications (inhalers)
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: this typically includes sessions with a respiratory therapist, where you will learn special breathing techniques to help you breathe easier and more efficiently.
  • Oxygen therapy

Bronchitis Prevention

You can’t always prevent acute bronchitis, but it’s always smart to practice good hygiene and wellness to prevent yourself from contracting and spreading contagious diseases. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Avoid people you know are sick with a respiratory illness
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water
  • Wear a face mask if you are sick to help stop the spread of illness
  • Get a yearly flu vaccine & a pneumonia vaccine every few years
  • Avoid lung irritants (cigarette smoke, dust, fumes, air pollution, etc.)
  • Quit smoking

The Lung Docs: Specialized Pulmonary Care

The Lung Docs provides specialized, state-of-the-art pulmonary care to our patients with bronchitis in Chattanooga and the surrounding Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia areas.

Dr. Mike’s Approach

I’m Dr. Mike Czarnecki, “The Lung Doc,” and I’m trained in all areas of pulmonary health, including the diagnosis and treatment of both acute and chronic bronchitis. I will work with you to formulate a personalized bronchitis treatment plan so you can live, laugh, love, and breathe better again! To get started, schedule an appointment online or call our office to speak to someone directly. I can’t wait to meet you!