Is bronchitis contagious? Acute versus chronic infection

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If you have a cough that you can't get rid of, you may wonder if it's contagious. If you've been coughing for more than a week, you probably have bronchitis , which usually lasts up to three weeks.

The spread of bronchitis depends on how you became infected and what caused it. Read on to learn more about the signs of bronchitis, how long bronchitis lasts, and how long bronchitis is contagious.

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Types of bronchitis

There are two main types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. They are usually caused by different mechanisms. Acute bronchitis is usually contagious, but chronic bronchitis is not.

During bronchitis, the bronchial tubes , the tubes that lead from the mouth to the lungs, swell and begin to produce a protective mucus that causes a cough.

There are two main ways to trigger this reaction:

  • An infection caused by a virus or (less commonly) bacteria or fungi . Acute bronchitis is often due to infection and is contagious. Acute bronchitis is also called a cold. This takes less than three weeks.
  • Long-term exposure to pollutants or irritants such as tobacco smoke . Long-term exposure to irritants causes swelling and mucus production, resulting in chronic bronchitis, which is not contagious. This lasts at least three months. This is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and you should consult your doctor about long-term treatment.

Signs and symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • A cough that keeps you awake at night.
  • Chest pain from coughing
  • Sore throat from coughing
  • Persistent fatigue, headaches, and body aches.
  • Subfebrile temperature

With chronic bronchitis, you can get a secondary infection caused by a virus or bacteria, in which case the germ can spread to other people.

How it spreads

Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses and bacteria that cause colds and flu. When someone is infected with acute viral or bacterial bronchitis, it is contagious and can be passed on to other people.

The virus or bacteria that cause bronchitis can be transmitted by talking, coughing, and sneezing, so being in close contact with an infected person is a great danger.

It also spreads easily from person to person when an infected person deposits bacteria or a virus on a surface when they touch it. When another person approaches, touches the surface and then touches the face, viruses or bacteria can cause an infection.

Bacterial bronchitis can turn into bacterial pneumonia. The bacteria that cause bacterial bronchitis are usually the same ones that cause pneumonia: Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus .

How long have you been contagious?

The types of viruses and bacteria that cause bronchitis are usually present in your body for two to six days before you begin to experience cold symptoms.

Bronchitis, especially if it is viral, can be contagious for several hours after infection, long before symptoms appear. Therefore, between the time you are exposed, there are quite a few days when you start to feel unwell, but you can transmit the infection during that time.

As soon as you feel sick, you will feel like you have a cold or flu that will last for a few to 10 days. Other symptoms may go away, but you may develop a prolonged cough. It will become infected during the cold or flu phase , and if viral bronchitis develops, it will likely be infectious for a few days or even a week.

Antibiotics are generally not recommended for viral or bacterial bronchitis. When administered correctly, you should no longer be contagious about 24 hours after you start taking them.

How to prevent getting or spreading bronchitis

To avoid getting bronchitis, stay away from sick people. If you have to be around people and you don't know if they are sick, remember to wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer if you can't. If you are afraid of getting sick, you can wear a mask to avoid breathing in germs.

If you are already sick and concerned about the spread of the infection, the best advice is to stay away from other people. Don't run business on your own unless you have to. Do not go to work. Stay home and focus on feeling better.

If you need to go outside, cover your mouth and nose (a mask is also a good option) and cough or sneeze into your elbow. Avoid touching people and surfaces, especially if they are common (like a doorknob or credit card machine in a store).

If you get sick at home and don't want other family members to get sick, you can take the same precautions. Wear masks, wash your hands frequently, and avoid standing nearby (for example, sleeping in another room if your spouse is sick).

A good idea to avoid getting sick, especially if you're older, is to get a flu shot every year and consider a pneumonia shot.

When to contact a healthcare provider

In most cases, bronchitis goes away on its own with time and rest. Contact your doctor if:

  • Your temperature is greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Cough up bloody mucus
  • You have trouble breathing or wheezing.
  • Symptoms do not improve after three weeks.
  • Your cough goes away and comes back
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