Bronchitis is worse than the common cold: It can cause coughing that’s so excessive that it results in rib pain, as well as yellow-like mucus, a sore throat, and other severe cold-like symptoms.
And like the cold, acute bronchitis is contagious—but for how long? If you have bronchitis, when can you go back to work, school, or your social life? In this article, I’ll cover the causes of bronchitis and how to recognize its symptoms.
I’ll also discuss how long you can expect bronchitis to last, the two types of bronchitis, how contagious it is, and how it can spread. Finally, I’ll outline when you should talk to a doctor about your bronchitis symptoms.
Is Bronchitis Contagious?
There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is contagious, chronic bronchitis is not. Chronic bronchitis tends to develop over time, is usually a result of smoking, and is considered a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold and the flu. Just like the common cold, the virus spreads through droplets in the air. If you have acute bronchitis, avoid being in close contact with other people, or you may infect them. If the bronchitis was caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.
You are no longer considered contagious after 48 hours of taking antibiotics.
Sometimes, people with asthma develop acute bronchitis, which is a result of a complication of a preexisting condition—it is not contagious. A single case of acute bronchitis is not cause for concern. But it can lead to cases of pneumonia for people with compromised immune systems. Chronic bronchitis, while not curable, is rarely contagious unless there is an underlying infection.
How Do I Know If I Have Bronchitis?
For either acute or chronic bronchitis, symptoms are similar. You could experience:
- Cough – usually an aggressive, hacking cough
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty breathing
- Low-grade fever and chills
- Mucus (sputum) production – either clear, white, or greenish-yellow in color
- Fatigue (tiredness)
While bronchitis can be caused by the flu virus, there is no direct connection. Bronchitis is the inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs. While making you feel horrible, it is usually self-limiting and requires supportive care instead of antibiotics.
Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Family Nurse Practitioner
How Long Will I Be Contagious?
If you have acute bronchitis, you are usually contagious during the incubation period, and while you have symptoms. The incubation period lasts around three to four days after exposure to the virus.
You will develop symptoms at the end of the incubation period, and will remain contagious until your symptoms resolve. If you have symptoms of bronchitis, stay home to avoid spreading your viral infection to others.
To properly treat your acute bronchitis, get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat your symptoms. Cough medicines like dextromethorphan (Robitussin, Vicks 44 Cough Relief) and guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) can alleviate your cough and help expel extra mucus. Follow the directions on the package for dosage, and consult your doctor before taking any new medications.
How Does Bronchitis Spread?
Acute bronchitis is spread through a virus passing from person to person. The virus is released through air droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
It can also be spread by touching an infected surface and then touching your nose or mouth.
Preventing Acute Bronchitis
You can prevent acute bronchitis by avoiding infected individuals and washing your hands often. Getting your yearly flu vaccine can also help prevent acute bronchitis, since many cases are caused by flu viruses.
If you suspect that you are sick, do not go to work or school, or you may accidentally infect your friends and coworkers. Cover your mouth while you sneeze and cough, and wash your hands after.
If you have a preexisting condition like asthma, do not smoke cigarettes or expose yourself to toxic air pollutants, or you can develop acute bronchitis.
When To See a Doctor
Acute bronchitis is not severe, and your symptoms will disappear over time.
But consult a doctor if you experience one or more of the following issues:
- Symptoms lasting more than three weeks
- Symptoms becoming extreme or severe
- A fever over 102° F (38.9°C) for more than two days
- Coughing up or producing blood
- Suspected pneumonia
- An underlying health condition, such as asthma
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis). (2021).
Acute & Chronic Bronchitis. (2021).
Chronic Bronchitis (2021).