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Is bronchitis contagious?

Read about lung problems and find out if bronchitis is contagious.

Bronchitis can be very contagious and can be transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Bronchitis can be very contagious and can be transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the main air passages to the lungs. According to the Mayo Clinic, cigarette smokers and people who live with smokers are at the greatest risk of suffering from acute or chronic bronchitis.  

Bronchitis can be very contagious, but understanding how this infection is transmitted can spare you and your family countless sick days. The main symptom of bronchitis is a cough that produces thick mucus that’s white, yellow or green in color. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, chest ache, fever, chills or wheezing. There are two types of bronchitis:

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis usually follows a bad cold or a respiratory infection. And like a cold, it is caused by a virus, meaning that it is contagious. The virus is generally transmitted through tiny droplets that are inhaled after an infected person coughs. You can also pick up the germs by touching the hand of an infected person after he or she coughs.

Initially, the virus affects the nose and throat before spreading to the lungs, where the bronchi become infected. When the bronchi become inflamed, bringing enough air into the lungs can be difficult, which causes shortness of breath. The tissues then become irritated, and produce more mucus than normal. This, in turn, leads to persistent coughing.

Since acute bronchitis is caused by a virus, antibiotic treatment is not effective. Instead, doctors recommend getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids and taking acetaminophen to relive fever. If the bronchitis is severe, your doctor may prescribe inhaled medicines that are typically used to treat asthma; these medicines can relax the bronchi, making breathing easier. Your body should be able to fight off the virus in about a week, though a dry cough may linger for several weeks after the infection is gone.

You should call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms: wheezing that lasts for more than two weeks, coughing with a high fever, chills, a low grade fever lasting more than three days, bloody mucus or coughing up blood, bad-smelling, thick green mucus, difficulty breathing, chest pain or swelling in the feet. If you have heart or lung disease and you develop these symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis lasts for at least three months, though it can last much longer. The inflammation can be constant, or recurring with the illness. Most of the time, chronic bronchitis is not contagious, but caused by environmental factors that irritate the bronchi. The main cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking. Other risk factors include secondhand smoke, repeated bouts of acute bronchitis, air pollution and exposure to chemical fumes or dust (common in some professions). Symptoms of chronic bronchitis are the same as acute bronchitis, but can also include swelling of the feet, ankles and legs; repeated bouts with cold or flu; and bluish lips, which can indicate a lack of oxygen. Though medications can be prescribed to alleviate some of the symptoms of chronic bronchitis, there is no cure. It is imperative that smokers who develop chronic bronchitis quit immediately to prevent further lung damage.

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