Acute and Chronic Bronchitis: Symptoms and Severity

Only the Bronchitis Symptoms Are Similar

Woman coughing. France
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The two types of bronchitis, acute and chronic, generally cause the same bronchitis symptoms. Both also involve irritation and inflammation of the airways (bronchial tubes) that bring air to your lungs. 

But the similarities end there. Acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis are different illnesses.

Acute bronchitis is a relatively short-term illness that usually results from an infection. If you get acute bronchitis, you can expect to recover in a period of days.

In contrast, once it begins, chronic bronchitis is a lifelong, serious illness. Unfortunately, it’s also common. About 8.7 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in 2015.

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is usually due to an infection (although it may be caused by lung irritants) and generally lasts from a few days up to 10 days – however, coughing may not stop for several weeks. It can be caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold, and it’s a common complication of colds and the flu, but bacterial infection can also cause it.

The lung irritants that can cause acute bronchitis include exposure to tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke), air pollution, fumes and vapors, and dust. You can help reduce your risk of getting acute bronchitis by avoiding exposure to lung irritants as much as possible.

Depending on symptom severity, acute bronchitis will improve either with treatment or on its own.

If you think you have acute bronchitis but you don’t start to feel better fairly quickly, contact your doctor to check whether you may have a different respiratory disorder.

Acute bronchitis symptoms include:

Chronic Bronchitis

Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis, but it can also result from ongoing exposure to such lung irritants as air pollution, chemicals, or dust.

With chronic bronchitis, the lining of your airways is always inflamed and irritated, so you always have a productive cough.

But that’s not all you need to be concerned about if you have chronic bronchitis. Because your airways are constantly inflamed, they're more easily infected by viruses or bacteria. When that happens, you’re essentially having an attack of acute bronchitis on top of your chronic illness. As a result, your acute bronchitis symptoms are likely to be more severe and last longer compared to if you didn’t have chronic bronchitis.

To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, a person must have a productive cough (a cough that brings up mucus) for at least three months in two consecutive years.

Some of the most common chronic bronchitis symptoms include:

  • A worsening cough that produces yellow or green mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Increased tiredness or fatigue
  • Swelling of legs, ankles, or feet


People with severe chronic bronchitis have only a small chance of complete recovery.

The likelihood of minimizing the impact of the illness on quality of life is improved if the person gets diagnosed and starts treatment early in the course of the disease, quits smoking, and avoids secondhand smoke.

Sources:

“What is bronchitis?” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (2011).

“Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) includes: chronic bronchitis and emphysema.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016).       

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