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Bronchitis: Acute vs. Chronic Comparison

Acute vs Chronic

Bronchial tubes are the airways that go to your lungs. When they get infected during a cold or flu, you can develop bronchitis. Common symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and a lot of excess mucus caused by irritated and swollen air passages. When comparing acute vs. chronic bronchitis, those with acute bronchitis will have these symptoms for only a few weeks, but with some rest and medication, the infection passes without any further concern. However, chronic bronchitis symptoms are more severe and appear to reoccur constantly which can lead to more serious conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is important to understand the differences between acute vs. chronic bronchitis in order to determine proper treatment.

A viral infection caused by a cold or flu is the most common cause of acute bronchitis. Long-term exposure to lung irritants like dust, car fumes, and cigarette smoke can also cause bronchitis. Studies have shown that air pollution inflames kids’ bronchitis since children with developing lungs are more susceptible to infection. However, a main difference between acute vs. chronic bronchitis, you are more likely to get chronic bronchitis if your family has a history of asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or other respiratory allergies. The repeated irritation of the lungs and airways by all these factors are the main causes of chronic bronchitis.

To determine the severity between acute vs. chronic bronchitis, your doctor can test your mucus to rule out things like a bacterial infection or allergies. X-rays check for pneumonia or to see signs of chronic bronchitis. They will also test for emphysema or asthma, ask about your coughing frequency and listen to your lungs for signs of bronchitis. These tests assess lung impairment levels between acute vs. chronic bronchitis. Once diagnosed, your doctor will prescribe the appropriate course of action based on your symptoms and test results.

Acute vs. Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms

Whether you have acute or chronic bronchitis, these symptoms can range from mild to severe, lasting a few days or up to several months:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Excess mucus and phlegm
  • Thicker than normal, yellow/green mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing when breathing normally
  • Chest discomfort
  • Fatigue

Patients may also experience flu like symptoms since the bronchitis may have been caused by the infection itself. Despite symptoms dissipating, coughing can last several weeks as your airways heal. However, if coughing and other symptoms persist, this may be a sign of a more serious condition such as asthma, pneumonia or COPD.

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis may occur at the tail-end of a cold or flu and last only a few days or weeks as the infection clears from your system. Coughing is the body’s way of expelling irritants from the lungs and bronchial tubes. Depending on how badly irritated the lungs are, will determine how long it will take to fully heal. As a result, patients experience a lingering cough despite otherwise feeling fine and healthy.

Chronic Bronchitis

A cough lasting over three months, and other reoccurring bronchitis symptoms may be a sign of chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis sufferers tend to see more severe symptoms as time goes on and are worse if the person is a smoker or gets irritated by cold seasonal weather or allergies. Patients with chronic bronchitis may also have trouble breathing on a regular basis.

Bronchitis Treatment

The best way to treat acute bronchitis is to simply treat the symptoms with over-the-counter cold or flu medication, stay hydrated, and get some rest. For faster relief, taking a pain reliever and using a humidifier can help ease breathing issues. However, antibiotic use in bronchitis is not recommended and can be harmful to your health because you may develop an antibiotic resistance. As a result, it may become increasingly difficult to treat future conditions where antibiotics would have been affective. Under normal circumstances, a case of acute bronchitis should clear up after 2-4 weeks of home care treatment.

For those with chronic bronchitis, your doctor may also prescribe the following long-term treatments to relieve your symptoms:

  • Oxygen therapy to facilitate normal breathing on a regular basis
  • New breathing techniques for pulmonary rehabilitation
  • A short-acting bronchodilator inhaler such as ProAir HFA, Proventil HFA, or Ventolin HFA for immediate symptom relief
  • An anti-inflammatory drug to reduce swelling of the lungs and airways
  • Quitting smoking
  • Physical exercise to improve lung strength and breathing capacity
  • Regularly using a mucus clearing device
  • Wearing a mask when exposed to air pollution and other irritants

Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if your bronchitis is from a bacterial infection. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis, but a combination of the treatments above will help manage the symptoms and ease discomfort.

There are preventative measures you can take to lower your risk of getting bronchitis such as quitting smoking, staying up to date with your flu shots and washing your hands regularly. For more information on the differences between acute vs. chronic bronchitis, speak with your doctor to determine which bronchitis medication is recommended for your condition. 

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IMPORTANT NOTE: The above information is intended to increase awareness of health information and does not suggest treatment or diagnosis. This information is not a substitute for individual medical attention and should not be construed to indicate that use of the drug is safe, appropriate, or effective for you. See your health care professional for medical advice and treatment.