Is Bronchitis Contagious?
Bronchitis is an infection of the lungs. When the main airways or bronchial tubes become inflamed due to an infection the inner lining swells and produces extra mucus, triggering coughs as the body attempts to clear the passageways. Bronchitis is contagious if caused by a viral illness, like the flu, or bacterial infection. If bronchitis is caused by environmental factors and not an infection then bronchitis is not contagious. Since the majority of cases are contagious it is important to take necessary precautions to prevent getting others sick.
What Causes Bronchitis?
The causes of bronchitis are:
- Viral illnesses – By far, this is the most common and most likely cause of bronchitis, especially acute bronchitis. It is estimated to cause around 90% of all acute bronchitis cases. These include the common cold and the flu.
- Bacterial infections – Unlike the viruses above, 99% of bacteria are good for your system and allow you to digest food, fight cancer and other life-saving functions. However, there are bacteria that when trapped in your lungs can cause an infection, resulting in bronchitis.
- Irritants in the air – As explained further in the risk factors below, particles in the air can also lead to inflammation in the lungs and bronchitis.
In addition to these causes, there are several other factors that increase your likelihood of contracting bronchitis:
- Weak immune system – It is harder for your body to fight off the virus or germs when your immune system is already worn down. It is very common for you to contract bronchitis after your body has worn down its immune system from fighting off a cold or flu. This also means that children, older adults and individuals with chronic conditions are especially at risk.
- Stomach acid issues – This includes heartburn, acid reflux or GERD as stomach acid can get caught in the bronchial tubes and inflame the lungs.
- Smoking – Smoking traps particles in the lungs that can damage and irritate the bronchial tubes, creating bronchitis.
- Environmental factors – Any environment with airborne chemicals, large amounts of dust or other harsh conditions that allow particles into your lungs can also produce acute or chronic bronchitis.
- History of respiratory illnesses – Emphysema, which is a disease that causes over-inflation of the lung’s air sacs (alveoli) or asthma, which is a similar inflammation of the airways, are examples of respiratory issues that increase the likelihood of contracting bronchitis.
Understanding Viral Bronchitis
There are two main types of Bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is less serious and much more common. It usually forms three to four days following a viral illness, like a cold or flu and is sometimes called viral bronchitis. Acute bronchitis may begin with a dry cough and then a cough with mucus after a few days. Symptoms of acute bronchitis usually last for 2-3 weeks and then clear as your body fights off the illness. These symptoms include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue, nasal congestion, sore throat and low fever and chills.
Is acute bronchitis contagious? Since the majority of cases are caused by viral illnesses, bronchitis is contagious. Acute bronchitis can also be caused by a bacterial infection, though this is much less common. Bacterial bronchitis is also contagious. How long is bronchitis contagious? This all depends on the virus or bacterial infection. Most often, the bronchitis contagious period is reported as 2 to 7 days. There are hundreds of different viruses or bacteria that are contagious for different lengths of time. Most doctors will not test for a specific virus or bacteria, so it is best to consider yourself contagious as long as you have common cold symptoms.
Other Causes of Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis is bronchitis that is recurring and comes back or lasts for longer than a few weeks. While chronic bronchitis is much less likely than acute bronchitis, it is much more serious. Chronic bronchitis symptoms are similar acute bronchitis symptoms, but the symptoms may last for longer than three months. The symptoms can also get worse after physical activity, as people age or at different times in the year.
Chronic bronchitis is most often caused by environmental factors with smoking being the number one cited cause. Estimates suggest that 90% of patients with chronic bronchitis have some history of smoking. The more frequent the infections and exposure to these factors the more likelihood of developing chronic bronchitis or exacerbating symptoms.
Treatments and Remedies for Bronchitis
In most cases, bronchitis goes away on its own after a couple of weeks, with the most severe symptoms lessening after the first few days. Since the majority of cases are caused by viral infections, antibiotics for bronchitis are not needed. Thus, the treatment for bronchitis is simply rest, drink water and eat healthy meals. If it is a rare case of bronchitis caused by bacteria then a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. The most likely choices for antibiotics are amoxicillin and doxycycline with erythromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. If you have asthma or allergies and contract bronchitis, a doctor may also prescribe an inhaler to counteract the narrowing of the airways and help shortness of breath.
Talk to a doctor before using cough medicine. Cough medicine allows the body to be less irritated by mucus, but this inhibits the body from coughing the mucus and getting it out of your system. Over-the-counter pain medication such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with the pain and any feverish symptoms.
The treatment for bronchitis that is recurring is similar to acute cases. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis other than addressing the underlying causes, most commonly smoking and other environmental factors. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator inhaler, which helps clear airways, or corticosteroids, which contain steroid hormones to decrease inflammation in the lungs. If damage to the lungs is too great, oxygen therapy may be necessary to regulate oxygen intake.
Since most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral illnesses that do not respond to antibiotics, here are some ways to lessen the symptoms as your body works to get better:
- Sleep a lot – Rest allows the body to recuperate and ensure minimal exposure to irritants in the air. It is arguably the best home remedy for bronchitis.
- Stay hydrated – Some doctors recommend as many as 12 glasses of water a day to help keep your immune system working and thin out the mucus.
- Take hot showers –The steam can help loosen the mucus and clear the lungs. You can also use a humidifier.
- Avoid dairy products – Dairy products can make mucus thicker. Contrary to popular belief, it does not make you produce more mucus.
- Gargle warm saltwater – If you have a sore throat, gargling with warm salt water can help relieve pain associated with an inflamed throat. A recommended amount is 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon of salt for an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
- Drink ginger, lemon or licorice tea with honey – Ginger, lemon and honey have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. There is some documented evidence to support that lemon can help reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function. While not a cure-all, some studies have shown honey can treat infections and act as cough suppression. Similarly, licorice has some research to suggest it can decrease swelling, coughing or mucus secretions.
- Take oregano oil – Surprisingly, the same oregano oil to spice delicious meals can be helpful as a medicine. Taking a few drops by the mouth can be helpful with your cough.
- Breathe in steam with eucalyptus oil – Eucalyptus oil can help loosen phlegm. You can add drops of the oil to boiling water and breathe in the steam. Note – Do not ingest unless recommended by your doctor and never give or apply to the skin of a child younger than 2 years old as it is toxic.
How to Prevent the Spread of Contagious Bronchitis
How contagious is bronchitis? Bronchitis is the same level of contagious as a cold or flu, so it is important to take the necessary precautions. If you have bronchitis caused by a viral illness or bacteria infection, do your best to prevent the spread of any viruses or bacteria that could get others sick. While the best thing would be to isolate yourself until you feel better, that is not always feasible or rational. Some easy precautions you can take to reduce the potential spread of bronchitis and other respiratory viruses in general include:
- Thoroughly washing your hands in soap and water after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose
- Using hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands
- Staying home from work or school
- Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Wearing a face mask (these can easily be found at your local pharmacy)
Above all, make sure you see your doctor if you need any form of relief, develop a persistent fever or have chronic bronchitis. You should also see your doctor immediately if you:
- Cough blood
- Cough thick, dark mucus
- Cannot sleep due to coughing
- Cough for longer than 3 weeks
- Lose weight suddenly
- Have a high fever
- Have trouble breathing
Preventing Contagious Bronchitis
If a friend, coworker or family member around you has bronchitis you may be concerned about getting sick or contracting an illness yourself. To protect yourself:
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water – Even if you have not made direct contact with another person, you are still touching doorknobs, phones and other objects that may be contaminated.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – Your skin acts as a tough barrier that viruses cannot get through, but they can get in through other openings more easily.
- Consider getting vaccinated – Flu shots and the pneumococcal vaccine can effectively protect you from viral and bacterial infections leading to a cold, flu or bronchitis.
Preventing Non-Contagious Bronchitis
Irritants in the air cause non-contagious bronchitis so it is important to think through your exposure to environmental factors:
- Avoid smoking or exposure to cigarette smoke – Cigarette smoke irritates the lungs by damaging tiny hairs inside airways meant to filter out particles in the air. This damage makes it much easier for you to develop an infection.
- Keep your home dry, clean and well ventilated – This will help eliminate the potential for mold and fungal growth.
- Wear a mask in harsh environments – If you are in an environment with chemical fumes, be sure to wear a mask to limit your exposure and filter the air going into your lungs.
Worrying about spreading any sort of illness is natural, but if you stay vigilant and use common sense you should have no problem maintaining your health and the health of those around you. If you think you may have bronchitis consult your doctor or visit an urgent care center as soon as you can.