Symptoms of bronchitis

A cough is the most common symptom of both acute and chronic bronchitis

Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

An introduction to the symptoms of bronchitis

Bronchitis is a condition that occurs when an irritant or infection causes inflammation and swelling to the lining of the bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs). Bronchitis can either be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).

Both conditions share many common symptoms, such as a cough (the most common symptoms of both conditions), shortness of breath, wheezing and excess mucus production, However, the severity and longevity of the symptoms are different.

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

The symptoms of acute bronchitis are usually mild to moderate in nature and can often resemble those of a common cold.

The most common symptom is a short-term, persistent cough, which may initially be dry and hacking, but can develop into a productive (chesty) cough, which brings up mucus (sometimes referred to as sputum) from your airways. In some cases your cough may persist longer than your other symptoms as the bronchi heal.

Other symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:
•    Fatigue
•    Mild fever
•    Chest discomfort
•    Shortness of breath
•    Wheezing

Acute bronchitis, which is caused by a viral infection, often start with symptoms of a common cold, including a runny nose, chills, headache, sore throat, and back and muscle aches.

The most common symptom of chronic bronchitis is a persistent, mucus-producing cough most days of the month, for at least 3 months out of the year, 2 years in a row. The mucus may be yellow, green or white. As the airways become increasingly irritated, mucus production worsens.

The severity and intensity of coughing and the amount and frequency of mucus produced varies from person to person. However, the cough is often described as being worse in the morning.

Other symptoms of chronic bronchitis can include wheezing and difficulty breathing, as well as chest discomfort.

How long will the symptoms last?

The main difference between acute and chronic bronchitis is the length of time the symptoms last.

Like the common cold, symptoms of acute bronchitis can come on quickly. However, they don’t tend to last for too long (usually no more than 3 weeks) before they gradually subside. Some people may find that their cough can linger for longer as the airways heal.

With chronic bronchitis, symptoms last much longer and may never go away, because the damage to the lungs may be permanent. With chronic bronchitis, symptoms don’t appear suddenly: they develop over time. It usually starts with a mucus-producing cough, worsening over time, until breathing becomes very difficult. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis can last for at least 3 months of the year during 2 consecutive years.

What symptoms should I look out for?

There are a few symptoms to look out for, which may cause complications if untreated or may be a sign of your condition worsening or another condition, such as pneumonia. 

Consult your doctor:
•    If your cough lasts longer than 3 weeks
•    If you have a fever higher than 38 ºC (100.4 ºF)
•    If you are wheezing heavily or having difficulty breathing
•    If you experience chest pains
•    If you cough up mucus that has blood in it.

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