Is bronchitis contagious?

Is bronchitis contagious? It’s a common question, especially during cold and flu season. Dr. Jeffrey Holmstrom, the medical director at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine, says it depends on whether you have acute or chronic bronchitis. 

“Bronchitis is defined as a process that causes swelling and mucus (phlegm) production in the small breathing passages (bronchi) in the lungs,” he explained. “This process usually causes a productive cough and can make people feel short of breath. How long the symptoms last can be a good indicator of whether the bronchitis is contagious or not.”

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is the term given to bronchitis that comes on quickly and lasts a short period of time, usually a week or two.

This type of bronchitis is usually caused by either a virus (cold) or bacteria and is contagious.As a rule of thumb, with acute bronchitis you are considered contagious until your symptoms subside. Occasionally acute bronchitis can be caused by direct exposure to an irritant like chemicals or fumes and is not contagious.

Treatment of acute bronchitis is usually symptomatic in nature. Drinking more fluids, using over the counter cough medication, taking a pain reliever and a fever reducer such as Tylenol and getting plenty of rest are the best ways to combat a case of bronchitis. Antibiotics are rarely needed and you should discuss their usage with your doctor.

Limiting the spread of acute bronchitis can be achieved by coughing or sneezing into your sleeve, frequent hand washing and staying home when you exhibit symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a condition that lasts a long time, months or longer, and is caused by repeated exposure to an irritant. The most common irritant that causes chronic bronchitis is tobacco smoke. Other causes include air pollution, dust or workplace fumes.

Chronic bronchitis is usually not contagious, and the treatment involves avoidance of the irritant — stopping smoking is key – and may require special medicines prescribed by your doctor to help your lungs work better.

A person with chronic bronchitis may get acute bronchitis after being exposed to a cold virus or bacteria and then become contagious. In this setting, the person with chronic bronchitis has a worsening of their usual pattern of cough which can signal exposure to the virus or bacteria.

People who have chronic bronchitis that have a change or worsening of their symptoms should seek advice from their doctor.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.