What Is Bronchitis? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Kiley Griffin
In the following lesson you will learn about types of bronchitis and how this condition effects breathing. You will learn the best ways to treat bronchitis as well as when to be concerned about a cough.

Case Studies

Lucy has been sick with a cold for a whole week. It started with just a stuffy nose, but now she is coughing up mucus. She is worried about the cough and worried that it might be something serious. Lucy decides to visit the doctor to get her cough checked out.

Chris has been smoking cigarettes for as long as he can remember. He's tried to quit a few times, but he always goes back to smoking. For the last year he has been coughing and sometimes struggles breathing with his coughing fits. He has noticed that his cough is always worse in the morning, and he always coughs up mucus. He has been hesitant to visit a doctor but realizes he might need to have his cough checked out.

Both Lucy and Chris have coughs--could they both have bronchitis?

Woman with a cough
Coughing woman

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation or swelling of the bronchi. Bronchi are the passageways that move air into the lungs. If you look at a picture of the anatomy of a lung (below) the bronchi are what look like upside down broccoli stalks. When these passageways are swollen and inflamed, it makes getting air into the lungs difficult and can cause difficulty breathing. Bronchitis is always associated with a cough that produces mucus. There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.

Lungs with bronchi

Acute bronchitis happens after being sick with a virus or cold. The illness will start in the nose and travel to the throat and eventually land in the lungs in the form of bronchitis. People can feel very sick with bronchitis, but it usually is not serious and they eventually return to their normal health.

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term illness. It is diagnosed in individuals who have a productive cough (a cough with mucus) for more than three months. This form of bronchitis is often found in people who have smoked and have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). It is the more serious bronchitis that can lead to lifelong oxygen use.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

Both acute and chronic bronchitis have many of the same symptoms, but there are also some differences. The primary symptom for all forms of bronchitis is a cough that produces mucus, known as a productive cough. This cough can also cause some shortness of breath or wheezing, which is a tightening of the lungs when coughing.

With acute bronchitis, individuals have been sick and will often have a fever and general body fatigue and aches. They are also more likely to have a runny nose and sore throat and to feel congested. Once the bronchitis cough starts to get better, individuals can still have a dry hacking cough for up to four weeks. It can be a long illness, but when it is over you return back to your healthy self.

Chronic bronchitis also has the typical productive cough and it is usually worse in the mornings. This cough can also have blood specks in the mucus after periods of hard coughing from damaged lungs. These symptoms do not go away and often get worse as people age, and can result in individuals needing oxygen to breath when their lungs are damaged beyond repair.

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