Bronchitis is irritation and inflammation of the airways that bring air in and out of your lungs. Acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis have similar symptoms, including a dry cough, a productive cough, and shortness of breath, but they are different illnesses that last for different lengths of time.
Acute bronchitis is a relatively short-term illness that usually results from an infection. If you get diagnosed with acute bronchitis, you can expect to recover in a period of days to weeks. In contrast, chronic bronchitis is a lifelong, serious illness.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you may also wonder if you have emphysema, which affects the lungs, not the bronchi. While emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur at the same time, there are differences between emphysema and bronchitis.
Acute and chronic bronchitis share many of same symptoms because they are both caused by inflammation of the bronchi. These include:
A dry cough
A productive cough, which brings up thick and/or discolored mucus. This mucus mixed with saliva is often referred to as sputum.
Shortness of breath
Body aches or chills
Chest discomfort from coughing
Here's a snapshot of the symptoms that distinguish acute bronchitis from chronic bronchitis, followed by more detailed information about each.
Short-term illness caused by an infection lasting a few days or weeks
Sneezing and runny nose
Long-term lasting from at least three months within two consecutive years
Chest tightness or pain
Swelling of ankles, feet, and (sometimes) legs
The typical progression of bronchitis symptoms starts with a runny nose, sore throat, productive cough and low-grade fever. Three or four days later, a dry, hacking cough may develop.
With acute bronchitis, the symptoms can often be more severe than those seen with chronic bronchitis.
Most cases of acute bronchitis last between three and 10 days. However, the cough can linger for several weeks, even after the infection that caused it is treated and gone.
Acute bronchitis normally improves on its own but may require treatment if it is caused by a bacterial infection.
In addition to the symptoms above, symptoms of acute bronchitis include:
Sneezing, runny nose
A sore throat
Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a productive cough lasting for at least three months in two consecutive years. Chronic bronchitis is not a disease that can be cured, but symptoms can be managed with medication.
In addition to the symptoms above, symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:
Chest tightness or pain
Persistent tiredness or fatigue
Swelling of the ankles or feet; leg swelling (related to heart complications of bronchitis)
Symptoms in Children
Children generally can develop acute bronchitis, and it is rare for a child to develop chronic bronchitis. In addition to the above symptoms of acute bronchitis, children are more likely to vomit with acute bronchitis because they may swallow drainage. Vomiting can occur suddenly and without warning along with a gagging cough.
Less Common Symptoms
Bronchitis is generally recognizable by a productive cough. There are a few other, less common, symptoms of bronchitis including:
Bad breath: Bad breath can develop quickly in people with acute bronchitis. Chronic bad breath can also be a sign of chronic bronchitis. This can occur when nasal congestion forces you to breathe through the mouth, enabling growth of bacteria on the tongue and mucous membranes. This bacteria may produce an odor. In general, it is not recommended to take antibiotics to reduce this bacteria that causes bad breath.
Coughing up blood: The persistent coughing of acute and chronic bronchitis can cause traumatic tears and bleeding in the bronchi or in the throat. This can make you cough up blood-tinged sputum.
Lack of physical endurance: When you have acute or chronic bronchitis, you may become short of breath very easily with physical exertion, even to the point of limiting your ability to exercise or walk long distances. If you have acute bronchitis, this will improve a few days after the illness resolves. If you have chronic bronchitis, you may need physical therapy to improve your endurance.
Trouble sleeping: The persistent coughing and nasal congestion of bronchitis can interrupt your sleep, making it difficult for you to rest, no matter what time of the day or night you attempt to sleep.
There are several serious complications of bronchitis, but they are not common. Complications can occur with chronic or acute bronchitis, but they are far more likely to occur as a result of chronic bronchitis due to the long-standing impact of the disease.
Infection: You can become more susceptible to another respiratory tract infection if you have bronchitis. If you get another infection while you have acute bronchitis, it can delay your recovery. If you develop a respiratory infection when you have chronic bronchitis, you are essentially having an attack of acute bronchitis on top of your chronic illness. As a result, an episode of acute bronchitis is likely to be more severe and last longer than it would if you didn’t have chronic bronchitis.
Pneumonia: If you have bronchitis of any type, your lungs are more likely to become infected, resulting in pneumonia. Pneumonia is a more persistent infection that makes you feel sicker than acute bronchitis does.
Aspiration pneumonia: The coughing of bronchitis can make you choke on your food if you cough while eating. This can cause the food that you eat to go down the wrong pipe, into your lungs, instead of your stomach. Aspiration pneumonia can be a persistent infection that takes a toll on your health and takes months to recover from.
Heart disease: The long-term breathing difficulties of chronic bronchitis can put additional strain on your heart, causing heart disease or exacerbating heart failure.
When to See a Doctor
If you have symptoms that seem to be more disabling than symptoms of a regular cold, or if you have trouble catching your breath, you should call your doctor.
Other warning signs to look for:
Delay in recovery: If you have symptoms of acute bronchitis, but you don’t start to feel better fairly quickly, contact your doctor because you may have a different, or more serious, respiratory disorder.
Recurrent symptoms after recovery: If your cough lasts for more than four to six weeks after diagnosis, contact your doctor. If your symptoms improve and then come back worse or different than before, you may have developed another infection and should seek medical attention.
Shortness of breath: If you find that you cannot catch your breath when you exert minimal physical effort or when you are at rest, you should seek medical attention.
Vomiting blood or spitting up blood: If you have blood or blood clots in your sputum, or if you vomit blood, this could be a symptom of a more serious illness than bronchitis.
Swelling: If you have swelling or puffiness in your hands and feet, this could be a symptom of a serious respiratory or cardiac problem, and you should get medical attention promptly.