Bronchitis may develop as the result of irritation from a viral or bacterial infection of the lungs or after long-term exposure to substances that irritate the respiratory tract.

Acute bronchitis is usually the result of a virus; the condition often develops after a virus causes an upper respiratory infection. Bacteria can sometimes cause acute cases, too.

Chronic bronchitis is typically the result of long-term exposure to irritants that damage the bronchial tubes and lungs. Cigarette smoke is the main cause of chronic bronchitis in the U.S. – up to 75 percent of people who have chronic bronchitis are current or former smokers, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke can also cause the condition, particularly if the individual inhales the smoke. Secondhand smoke, chemical fumes, air pollution, and dusts in the environment or workplace can also cause chronic cases.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes of acute bronchitis include:

  • Viral infection of the respiratory tract
  • Bacterial infection of the respiratory tract

Risk factors for acute bronchitis include:

  • Close contact with someone who has acute bronchitis or a cold
  • Failure to get immunizations
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke, fumes, air pollution, and dust

Causes of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars, or other types of tobacco
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Chemical fumes
  • Air pollution and dusts in the environment

Risk factors of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Smoking – as many as three out of four people who have chronic bronchitis are current or former smokers
  • Long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes and dusts, or other lung irritants in the environment or workplace
  • Age – most chronic bronchitis patients were at least 40 years old when their symptoms began
  • Genetics – smokers with a family history of COPD are more likely to develop chronic bronchitis


How can I get rid of bronchitis fast?

Certain treatments can reduce symptoms quickly. These treatments include:

  • rest to speed recovery,
  • drinking fluids to thin mucus enough to cough out of the lungs easily, and
  • taking ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers. Cough suppressants can quiet a cough to ensure restful sleep, while expectorants loosen mucus to make it easier to cough up.

While there is no cure for chronic bronchitis, treatments and lifestyle changes can help with symptoms, slow the progression of the disease, and improve an individual’s ability to stay active.

How long does bronchitis last?

Acute cases typically last less than 3 weeks while chronic cases persist longer and almost never go away completely.

Can you die from bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is rarely fatal.

Chronic bronchitis, however, can slowly destroy the lungs to become a life-threatening condition. Along with emphysema (damaged air sacs in the lungs), chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Claiming more than 146,000 lives per year in the United States, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the nation.

Disclaimer: this article does not constitute or replace medical advice. If you have an emergency or a serious medical question, please contact a medical professional or call 911 immediately. To see our full medical disclaimer, visit our Terms of Use page.

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