Acute bronchitis

At a glance

  • In acute bronchitis, the lower airways (bronchi) are temporarily inflamed.
  • The inflammation is usually caused by cold viruses.
  • The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough.
  • It typically gets better on its own without treatment, so you don’t need to use medication.


Photo of a patient being examined by a doctor

In acute , the lower airways () are temporarily inflamed. The is usually caused by cold viruses, so it often occurs together with other symptoms of a cold.

Acute causes a cough which might not go away for a while, even after the cold has gone away. Although the cough may be unpleasant and persistent, in otherwise healthy people it usually isn’t anything serious. The symptoms then go away on their own after a few weeks. Treatment with medication usually isn’t necessary. Some medications may help relieve the symptoms a bit.


The main symptom of acute is a cough. The cough is usually dry at first. Later on, it may develop into a phlegmy cough, where you cough up mucus. Doctors sometimes call this kind of cough a “cough with sputum” or a “productive cough.” The color of the coughed-up sputum may change during the course of the illness – for instance, from whitish to a greenish yellow.

People often cough at night, which disturbs their sleep. If acute occurs together with a cold, many of those affected have other symptoms such as a mild fever, a stuffy nose, a sore throat and a hoarse voice. Severe coughs can lead to pain behind the breastbone and sometimes make it harder to breathe.

Good to know

When children have a high temperature and a cough, parents often wonder whether to take them to the doctor or not. Acute usually doesn’t have to be treated with medicine. So there’s nothing wrong with staying at home and waiting to see if it gets better first.


Bronchitis is usually caused by a viral (viruses). There are many different viruses that can cause respiratory infections like colds, the flu or sinusitis. In rarer cases, acute can also be caused by or harmful substances that have been breathed in (such as fine dust with sulphur or heavy metals in it). Fungal infections may cause acute too, but that is very rare.

Viruses and bacteria are able to enter the in your lungs when you breathe in. There they can settle in the mucous membranes and start multiplying (grow in number). In order to fight them, your body reacts with an inflammation: The blood supply to the infected membranes is increased, and the membranes become swollen. Cells of the enter the inflamed area to fight the germs. The membranes produce more fluid and mucus to “flush out” the viruses, and dead cells, which are coughed up as phlegm.

When you cough, droplets of fluid containing the germs are released into the air. If other people come into contact with these droplets, they may become infected too. When germs spread in this way it is sometimes referred to as a “droplet .”

Prevalence and outlook

Coughs are one of the main illnesses that people seek medical advice for in Germany and similar countries. Every year, about 5 out of 100 people go to their family doctor because of acute . Most of them get it in the autumn or winter.

In most cases acute goes away without treatment and doesn’t have any lasting effects – unless the lungs were already damaged beforehand. Common cold symptoms such as a stuffy nose or fever usually get a lot better within a few days. But it might take several weeks for the cough to go away if you have acute .

It is a good idea to see your doctor if the cough lasts longer than eight weeks. If the cough lasts for several months and you are coughing up phlegm, it could be chronic . That is often caused by smoking and can develop into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (). If no other cause is found for a long-lasting cough, experts refer to it as an “unexplained chronic cough.”


In people who have a weakened or a chronic heart or lung condition, acute may develop into pneumonia in rare cases. The then spreads from the mucous membranes lining the lungs to the lung tissue itself. If someone has , acute can trigger a flare-up (exacerbation).


If you go to your family doctor with a persistent cough, you will usually first be asked about the symptoms you have and your general health.

In the physical examination that follows, the doctor will usually feel the lymph nodes in your neck, look into your throat and ears, gently tap your sinuses, and listen to your lungs and heart with a stethoscope. He or she may also measure your temperature, pulse or blood pressure.

You should see a doctor about any of the following warning signs:

  • The cough lasts longer than eight weeks.
  • You have a very high fever, or a fever that returns after going away for a while.
  • You feel very ill, have chills, or sweat at night while you have the cough.
  • The mucus that is coughed up has blood in it.
  • You repeatedly find it hard to breathe, and your breathing is accompanied by a strange wheezing sound.

If you have these kinds of symptoms, further diagnostic examinations or tests (for instance, a chest x-ray or blood tests) will be done to rule out any serious illnesses.

If you have a weakened immune system or a chronic disease affecting your heart or lungs, it may be a good idea to go to the doctor even if the symptoms are milder.


People who are taking steps to prevent common colds will also be less likely to get acute . As with all respiratory infections, hygiene plays an important role here: Washing your hands regularly, and trying not to touch your face with your fingers, lowers the risk of getting a common cold.

In order to stop colds from spreading to other people, you can

  • cough or sneeze into your elbow, not into your hand,
  • throw away used tissues immediately,
  • practice social distancing,
  • avoid shaking hands and hugging or kissing people, and
  • stay at home until you are no longer contagious.

A medical mask that covers your nose and mouth can also help prevent the viruses from spreading to yourself and other people.

A number of studies have looked into whether things like vitamin supplements, probiotics, herbal medicines, gurgling, getting enough sleep or regular exercise can prevent respiratory tract infections. It wasn’t possible to draw any clear conclusions, though.


Acute gets better on its own without treatment. Often, you won’t even need to go to the doctor. If you feel weak and ill, it’s best to take it easy for a few days. This also means not doing any sports or other strenuous physical activities. Hot tea or broth is usually considered to have a soothing effect. But there is no scientific proof that drinking a lot more fluids than usual helps, or doesn’t help.

Acute doesn’t need to be treated with medication. Drugs such as paracetamol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen are sometimes a good idea, though, for the relief of cold symptoms such as fever and pain.

There hasn’t been enough research on the effectiveness of cough medicines that are designed to make you cough less (cough suppressants) or make it easier to cough up phlegm (expectorants). Because coughing has the important function of getting rid of mucus and foreign objects, cough suppressants should only be used for a limited amount of time, and only for really unpleasant, dry coughs that disrupt your sleep. Herbal medicines might relieve coughs somewhat.

Because the symptoms are usually caused by viruses, don’t help much in the treatment of acute . But they can have side effects and contribute to bacteria becoming resistant. So aren’t recommended as a treatment for acute .

Albert RH. Diagnosis and treatment of acute bronchitis. Am Fam Physician 2010; 82(11): 1345-1350.

Araujo GV, Oliveira Junior MH, Peixoto DM et al. Probiotics for the treatment of upper and lower respiratory-tract infections in children: systematic review based on randomized clinical trials. J Pediatr 2015; 91(5): 413-427.

Azad MB, Coneys JG, Kozyrskyj AL et al. Probiotic supplementation during pregnancy or infancy for the prevention of asthma and wheeze: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2013; 347: f6471.

Bergman P, Lindh AU, Björkhem-Bergman L et al. Vitamin D and Respiratory Tract Infections: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS One 2013; 8(6): e65835.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Allgemeinmedizin und Familienmedizin (DEGAM). Akuter und chronischer Husten (S3-Leitlinie). AWMF-Registernr.: 053-013. 2021.

Grande AJ, Keogh J, Silva V et al. Exercise versus no exercise for the occurrence, severity, and duration of acute respiratory infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2020; (4): CD010596.

Guppy MP, Mickan SM, Del Mar CB et al. Advising patients to increase fluid intake for treating acute respiratory infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; (2): CD004419.

Hawke K, King D, van Driel ML et al. Homeopathic medicinal products for preventing and treating acute respiratory tract infections in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2022; (12): CD005974.

Jefferson T, Dooley L, Ferroni E et al. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2023; (1): CD006207.

Jolliffe DA, Camargo CA, Sluyter JD et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis of aggregate data from randomised controlled trials. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2021; 9(5): 276-292.

Mao S, Huang S. Vitamin D supplementation and risk of respiratory tract infections: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Scand J Infect Dis 2013; 45(9): 696-702.

Martineau AR, Jolliffe DA, Greenberg L et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory infections: individual participant data meta-analysis. Health Technol Assess 2019; 23(2): 1-44.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Respiratory tract infections – antibiotic prescribing: Prescribing of antibiotics for self-limiting respiratory tract infections in adults and children in primary care. (NICE Clinical Guidelines; No. 69). 2008.

Oduwole O, Udoh EE, Oyo-Ita A et al. Honey for acute cough in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2018; (4): CD007094.

Smith SM, Fahey T, Smucny J et al. Antibiotics for acute bronchitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2017; (6): CD000245.

Timmer A, Günther J, Motschall E et al. Pelargonium sidoides extract for treating acute respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (10): CD006323.

Wang Y, Li X, Ge T et al. Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Medicine (Baltimore) 2016; 95(31): e4509.

Wark P. Bronchitis (acute). BMJ Clin Evid 2015: 1508.

Wenzel RP, Fowler AA. Clinical practice. Acute bronchitis. N Engl J Med 2006; 355(20): 2125-2130.

Xiao L, Xing C, Yang Z et al. Vitamin D supplementation for the prevention of childhood acute respiratory infections: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Br J Nutr 2015; 114(7): 1026-1034.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas - either via our form or by We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Über diese Seite

Updated on April 18, 2023

Next planned update: 2026


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.