Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Doctor listening to woman's cough with stethoscope
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If you were to encounter someone with bronchitis, inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry oxygen to and from the lungs, it wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder if the condition is contagious. Bronchitis is something you can catch—sort of and sometimes. That may not sound authoritative, but like many health questions, this one has some nuance and ultimately depends on the type of bronchitis someone has:

Causes of Bronchitis

Acute and chronic bronchitis largely differ by their causes.

According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 95 percent of acute bronchitis cases are the result of a viral infection. Bacteria is also a possible cause. As such, bronchitis is a feature of an underlying infection.

In this regard, you can develop (or "catch") bronchitis when you get the underlying infection, but it is not a given. In some cases, you can get a cold or the flu and not develop bronchitis. It varies from person to person.

Broadly speaking, an acute illness like this is characterized by a rapid onset of symptoms, which peak and eventually resolve with or without treatment. The illness can be over in a few days or last for up to three months.

Chronic bronchitis, by contrast, cannot be caught. It is the result of permanent damage to the lungs, primarily due to cigarette smoking. Chronic bronchitis can also be caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, smog, industrial fumes, and other inhaled toxins. As such, chronic bronchitis is a condition rather than a feature of an underlying illness.

Chronic bronchitis is one of the two main forms of COPD, which also includes emphysema. It is an irreversible condition that is managed by medications and various techniques to drain mucus from the lungs. Depending on the severity of the bronchitis, the symptoms may be mild and always present, or suddenly flare up with acute exacerbations.

Acute Bronchitis vs. Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms

On first glance, both types of bronchitis may seem to mimic a respiratory infection—or one another. Acute and chronic bronchitis share many of same symptoms, including: 

  • Cough, often productive (meaning you can bring up mucus, which may be thick and/or discolored)
  • Chest congestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches or chills
  • Sinus congestion
  • Fever

Despite these similarities, there may be certain clues that can help differentiate one type from the other.

With acute bronchitis, the symptoms can often be more severe than those seen with chronic bronchitis. The fever may be higher, the chills may be more severe, and sneezing may accompany the runny nose and congestion. In this case, the totality of symptoms would "read" as the bad cold or flu.

But that's not always the case, since severe exacerbations may have many of the same symptoms, including sneezing.

Some people will also tell you that bad breath is a "tell-tale" sign of chronic bronchitis. And while it is true that this is common in people with COPD, bad breath can also develop quickly in people with acute bronchitis. This would occur when nasal congestion force you to breathe through the mouth, enabling bacterial growth on the tongue and mucous membranes.

A Word From Verywell

If someone around you has the all of the signs of bronchitis, you will probably want to keep your distance as much as possible until symptoms subside. This is especially true during cold and flu season. For added protection, you would also want to take standard precautions like getting your annual flu shot.

While that may not be easy if it's a loved one, this would be the time to avoid sharing a cup, placing your toothbrush near theirs, or doing anything else that would heighten your exposure to their illness. Even if you catch their cold or flu, you may not "catch" bronchitis—but you might.

Though you can't catch bronchitis from someone whose chronic condition causes it, remember that they too can catch a cold or flu that may exacerbate their symptoms, and that illness can be passed on to you.

In the end, you need to use your best judgment in either situation and take every precaution to avoid getting any transmittable infection.

Sources:

Hart, A. "Evidence-based diagnosis and management of acute bronchitis." Nurse Pract. 2014; 39(9):32-39; DOI: 10.1097/01.NPR.0000452978.99676.2b.

Kim, V. and Criner, G. "Chronic Bronchitis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease." Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2013; 187(3):228-37; DOI: 10.1164/rccm.210210-1843Cl.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: National Institutes of Health. "What Is Bronchitis?" Bethesda, Maryland; updated August 4, 2011.

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