Bronchitis: Is It Contagious? How Does it Spread?
Bronchitis is caused by inflammation and swelling in the airways inside the lungs, which are called bronchi. Because these airway tubes carry oxygen to the lungs, the swelling associated with bronchitis can make it difficult to breath. Bronchitis can be caused by a variety of things, and some wonder “Is bronchitis contagious?”
Most people who have bronchitis also have a cough that may bring up mucus. Many people assume that bronchitis is not contagious, but that is not always true, because not all bronchitis has the same cause.
There are two kinds of bronchitis:
Acute bronchitis is the name given to bronchitis that comes on quickly and usually lasts for a relatively short time. This type of bronchitis is most commonly caused by a viral infection, such as the cold or flu virus. Other causes include bacterial infection such as Pneumococcus or exposure to chemicals that irritate the lining of the bronchi.
Acute bronchitis is contagious if it is caused by either a virus or bacteria. These germs may be present in mucus that can be spread through coughing or sneezing.
Chronic, which means your airways are irritated over and over. This type lasts for a few months or longer, and usually comes back year after year. Things that irritate your lungs, like dust, chemicals, or smoke from a fire or cigarettes, usually cause it. Chronic bronchitis isn’t contagious, but it’s a serious health problem that requires a doctor’s care.
Chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term condition, is usually caused by repeated exposure to something that irritates the lining of the airways. Smoking is the primary cause of chronic bronchitis.
Other common causes include air pollution, dust, or fumes from a work environment. Because chronic bronchitis is caused by long-term irritation in the lungs, it is not contagious and cannot be spread to other people.
However, just because someone has been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis does not mean he or she can never be contagious. People with chronic bronchitis can also catch acute bronchitis.
So if coughing or difficulty breathing seems worse than that normally caused by chronic bronchitis, be cautious in case a contagious variety of bronchitis is also present.
Is acute bronchitis contagious?
Yes. Most of the time, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus. Influenza (flu) viruses are a common cause, but many other viruses can cause acute bronchitis.
Flu viruses spread mainly from person to person by droplets produced when an ill person coughs, sneezes or talks. Flu viruses also may spread when people touch something with the virus on it and then touch their mouth, eyes or nose. Many other respiratory viruses are spread in these ways too.
To reduce your risk of catching viruses that can cause bronchitis:
- Avoid close contact with people who have the flu or another respiratory illness
- Wash your hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
- Get an annual flu shot
- People who have chronic bronchitis or asthma sometimes develop acute bronchitis. In these cases, the acute bronchitis is most likely a complication of the existing condition. This type of bronchitis is not caused by an infectious virus, so it’s less likely to be contagious.
What Should I Do If I Get Bronchitis?
Most cases of acute bronchitis resolve on their own within a week or so. The cough can linger for several weeks or even longer.
Because a majority of cases of bronchitis are caused by viruses, you should not take antibiotics to treat it. Antibiotics do not kill viruses and will not make you feel better any faster. Instead, they can cause side effects and lead to antibiotic resistance. In a few cases, bronchitis may be caused by bacteria and your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection.
Treating bronchitis is similar to treating other viral infections – you can treat the symptoms but you have to wait for the virus to go away on its own.
Things you can do to help relieve the cough include:
- Taking over the counter medications
- Taking prescribed medications (like an inhaler) as needed or recommended by your health care provider
- Getting plenty of rest
- Drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated
- Using a humidifier
- If you have bronchitis, talk to your health care provider about what treatment options are best for you. Do your best to stay away from people, especially those who are at high risk for serious illness such as infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
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