Pūkahukahu hauā ohotata (matenga poho) Acute bronchitis (chest infection)

Acute bronchitis is the most common type of chest infection. Bronchitis is an infection in the large airways in your lungs, called bronchi. Acute means it comes on quickly and does not last long.

Types of bronchitis

In acute bronchitis your bronchi are infected and become inflamed and irritated, causing a cough and sometimes mucus (sputum or phlegm).

It is different from chronic (long-lasting) bronchitis, which may be part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (internal link)

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and follows a cold or flu. This is what people mean when they say a cold has "gone to their chest".

It will usually get better on its own in around 1 to 3 weeks, although you may have a cough for several weeks because your airways are irritated.

Rarely, bronchitis turns into pneumonia, which is a more serious chest infection. This is more common in:

  • young tamariki (children)
  • older people
  • people with other health conditions
  • people who smoke.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

If you have bronchitis, you will probably have:

  • a cough (with or without mucus, which can be yellow, white or grey)
  • cold symptoms such as a sore throat, headache and aches and pains
  • a mild fever (less than 38°C for no longer than three days)
  • a wheeze or mild shortness of breath.

If you have a high fever, shortness of breath or chest pain, or if you cough up blood or feel very unwell, see your healthcare provider as you may have a more serious condition such as pneumonia.

If you have a serious ongoing health condition, especially lung disease, and you get symptoms of bronchitis, you should see your healthcare provider for advice.

Treating acute bronchitis

The main treatments for acute bronchitis are rest and paracetamol or ibuprofen to help with fever, aches and pains. These will make you more comfortable while you get better.

As most bronchitis is caused by a virus (viral bronchitis), if you have healthy lungs, you do not need antibiotics. Antibiotics only work with bacteria, not with viruses.

Even if your bronchitis is caused by bacteria, antibiotics will only speed up your recovery by about half a day. And they might cause side effects such as a tummy upset or thrush, which could make you feel worse.

Self care for acute bronchitis

You may choose to take cough medicine to help you sleep at night, but only if you are not coughing up mucus (a dry cough). You should not take cough suppressants if you are coughing up mucus (a productive or wet cough).

Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze, so you do not spread the infection to other people. 

Preventing acute bronchitis

To reduce your risk of getting bronchitis:

  • practise good hand hygiene
  • avoid catching colds
  • do not smoke
  • get a flu vaccine.

Clinical review

This content was written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. It has been adapted for Health Information and Services.

Clinical advisers — HealthInfo (external link)