Causes of bronchitis

Bronchitis can be caused by either a virus or bacteria, although viral bronchitis is much more common.

In most cases, bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or flu. The virus is contained in the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when someone coughs or sneezes.

These droplets typically spread about 1m (3ft). They hang suspended in the air for a while, then land on surfaces where the virus can survive for up to 24 hours. Anyone who touches these surfaces can spread the virus further by touching something else.

People with chronic bronchitis often develop another smoking-related lung disease called emphysema where the air sacs inside the lungs become damaged, causing shortness of breath.

If you smoke, you should stop immediately because is aggravates bronchitis and increases your risk of developing emphysema. Stopping smoking while you have bronchitis can also be the perfect opportunity to quit altogether.

In the meantime, you should drink lots of fluid and get plenty of rest (see below).

In some cases, the symptoms of bronchitis can last much longer. If symptoms last for at least three months, it's known as "chronic bronchitis". There's no cure for chronic bronchitis, but some lifestyle changes can help ease your symptoms, such as:

  • eating a healthy diet can help prevent lung infections
  • regular moderate exercise plus a healthy diet will help you to maintain a healthy weight being overweight makes breathing harder
  • avoiding smoking and smoky environments

There are several medications to relieve symptoms. Bronchodilators and steroids "open up" the airways and can be prescribed as an inhaler or as tablets. Mucolytic medicines thin the mucus in the lungs making it easier to cough up.

Managing symptoms at home

If you have acute bronchitis:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluid this helps prevent dehydration and thins the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • treat headaches, fever, and aches and pains with paracetamol or ibuprofen although ibuprofen isn't recommended if you have asthma

There's little evidence that cough medicines work read more about treating coughs .

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recommended that over-the-counter cough medicines shouldn't be given to children under the age of six. Children aged 6 to 12 should only use them on the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.

As an alternative to an over-the-counter cough medicine, try making your own mixture of honey and lemon, which can help soothe a sore throat and ease your cough.


Antibiotics aren't routinely prescribed for bronchitis because it's normally caused by a virus. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and prescribing them when they're unnecessary can, over time, make bacteria more resistant to antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics may also be recommended for:

  • premature babies
  • elderly people over the age of 80
  • people with a history of heart, lung, kidney or liver disease
  • people with a weakened immune system, which could be the result of an underlying condition or a side effect of a treatment such as steroid medication
  • people with cystic fibrosis

If you're prescribed antibiotics for bronchitis, it's likely to be a five-day course of amoxicillin or doxycycline. Side effects of these drugs are uncommon, but include nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 30 Aug 2016