Can Bronchitis Be Contagious?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
November 9, 2021

Bronchitis is worse than the common cold: It can cause coughing that’s so excessive that it results in rib pain, as well as yellow-like mucus, a sore throat, and other severe cold-like symptoms.

And like the cold, acute bronchitis is contagious—but for how long?

If you have bronchitis, when can you go back to work, school, or your social life?

In this article, I’ll cover the causes of bronchitis and how to recognize its symptoms.

I’ll also discuss how long you can expect bronchitis to last, how contagious it is, and how it can spread.

Finally, I’ll outline when you should talk to a doctor about your bronchitis symptoms.

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What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs.

When the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed either through infection or air irritants, your body releases excess mucus.

Bronchitis feels like extreme fatigue, mild fever, troubled breathing, and a severe cough.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic bronchitis.

Acute Bronchitis 

Acute bronchitis is often called a chest cold.

It’s caused by a viral upper respiratory infection and may develop from the common cold or the flu virus—the infection usually starts in the nose or throat, and travels down to the bronchial tubes.

When this happens, your body tries to fight off the infection—the bronchial tubes swell and become inflamed, and you begin to cough and experience the other symptoms of bronchitis.

Occasionally, acute bronchitis is caused by bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics.

But usually, it’s viral: If you have acute bronchitis, you will develop symptoms three to four days following exposure to the virus.

Your symptoms should improve within seven to 10 days.

But your cough may linger for three weeks after your other symptoms have disappeared.

Common symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

Chronic Bronchitis 

Chronic bronchitis is a serious, ongoing illness caused by cigarette smoke or regular exposure to lung irritants.

Air pollution, dust, and other toxic air chemicals that irritate the lining of the bronchial tubes can cause chronic bronchitis.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis are very similar to acute bronchitis, but they last much longer.

Chronic bronchitis can last for a few months to two years, and is not curable.

Patients with chronic bronchitis usually experience flare-ups during the cold months.

To avoid worsening your condition, you should not smoke cigarettes or inhale second-hand smoke.

Avoid work environments with constant exposure to pollution or other toxic air chemicals.

Your doctor may prescribe steroids or oxygen therapy to open your airways and clear out excess mucus. 

Is Acute Bronchitis Contagious?

Yes, acute bronchitis is contagious.

The same viruses that cause the common cold and the flu are also responsible for acute bronchitis.

Just like the common cold, the virus spreads through droplets in the air.

If you have acute bronchitis, avoid being in close contact with other people, or you may infect them.

If the bronchitis was caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.

You are no longer considered contagious after 48 hours of taking antibiotics.

Sometimes, people with asthma develop acute bronchitis, which is a result of a complication of a preexisting condition—it is not contagious.

A single case of acute bronchitis is not cause for concern. But it can lead to cases of pneumonia for people with compromised immune systems. 

How Long Will You Be Contagious? 

If you have acute bronchitis, you are usually contagious during the incubation period, and while you have symptoms.

The incubation period lasts around three to four days after exposure to the virus.

You will develop symptoms at the end of the incubation period, and will remain contagious until your symptoms resolve.

If you have symptoms of bronchitis, stay home to avoid spreading your viral infection to others.

To properly treat your acute bronchitis, get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and take over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat your symptoms.

Cough medicines like dextromethorphan (Robitussin, Vicks 44 Cough Relief) and guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) can alleviate your cough and help expel extra mucus.

Follow the directions on the package for dosage, and consult your doctor before taking any new medications. 

How Does Acute Bronchitis Spread?

Acute bronchitis is spread through a virus passing from person to person.

The virus is released through air droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

It can also be spread by touching an infected surface and then touching your nose or mouth. 

Preventing Acute Bronchitis 

You can prevent acute bronchitis by avoiding infected individuals and washing your hands often.

Getting your yearly flu vaccine can also help prevent acute bronchitis, since many cases are caused by flu viruses.

If you suspect that you are sick, do not go to work or school, or you may accidentally infect your friends and coworkers.

Cover your mouth while you sneeze and cough, and wash your hands after.

If you have a preexisting condition like asthma, do not smoke cigarettes or expose yourself to toxic air pollutants, or you can develop acute bronchitis. 

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When To See a Doctor

Acute bronchitis is not severe, and your symptoms will disappear over time.

But consult a doctor if you experience one or more of the following issues: 

  • Symptoms lasting more than three weeks 
  • Symptoms becoming extreme or severe 
  • A fever over 102° F (38.9°C) for more than two days
  • Coughing up or producing blood
  • Suspected pneumonia
  • An underlying health condition, such as asthma

How K Health Can help 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Should you stay home from work or school if you have bronchitis?
Yes. If you have active symptoms like a cough or headache, you are contagious. Do your best to avoid other people while you are sick, or you may accidentally spread the virus to your friends or coworkers.
How long does it take for bronchitis to run its course?
Acute bronchitis can last anywhere from seven to 10 days. However, it is not unusual to have a persistent cough to last a few weeks after your other symptoms have disappeared. Make sure you get plenty of rest, or your bronchitis can worsen and develop into pneumonia. Chronic bronchitis is not curable, and can last from two months to two years. Consult a doctor to receive proper treatment for your chronic bronchitis.
Do you need antibiotics to treat bronchitis?
In most cases, no. You do not need antibiotics to treat acute bronchitis since it is commonly caused by a viral infection. On rare occasions, it is caused by a bacterial infection; in these cases, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. You should consult a doctor to see if your infection is viral or bacterial. Do not treat your viral infection with antibiotics, as it could lead to other serious side effects.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.