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Is Bronchitis Contagious

Is Bronchitis Contagious? Here’s What All You Need to Know

You have been coughing up sputum for the last couple of days. You sleep with a cup on your bedside so that you don’t have to wake up to spit in the middle of the night. You feel fatigued and lethargic, and the soreness in your throat is making it difficult for you to even swallow water. You had to miss work the last couple of days but you find out that you aren’t the only one. Nearly half of your department is out with a ‘chest cold’ or ‘bronchitis’. 

And you begin to wonder, 

You think it is time to book an appointment with your general practitioner to get your coughing spells diagnosed and treated, and if possible, keep others around you healthy and safe from the disease. 

What Is Bronchitis? Code J20. 9

The air you breathe in from your mouth enters your trachea or the windpipe. The windpipe leads into the lungs by dividing into two major branches known as the bronchi. Each bronchus further subdivides into multiple tiny branches, called bronchioles, which open into the alveolar sacs or air pockets for gaseous exchange. The air then leaves your mouth the same way it entered, and the cycle of breathing (ventilation) continues. 

The bronchi or airways secrete mucus, primarily to keep foreign bodies and germs out from the lungs. In some cases, such as due to infections or smoke, the bronchi may become inflamed and produce thick, sticky, discolored, and malodorous mucus causing a cough with sputum. 

This inflammation of the lining of these bigger airways is called Bronchitis. It may be acute or chronic, depending on the cause and extent of inflammation.

Acute Bronchitis ICD-10 Code J20. 9

If your doctor tells you that you have a cough due to ‘bronchitis’, they are usually referring to the acute condition of the disease. 

Acute bronchitis, also known as a chest cold, is most commonly caused by a viral infection and is usually an extension of a common cold or the flu. This means that the same virus which causes a runny or stuffy nose during your cold also causes you to cough up sputum when it invades the bronchi and the lungs. These viruses usually include Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), rhinovirus, adenovirus, influenza, and of course, the recent addition to this list, the coronavirus. 

Apart from viruses, other causes such as bacteria, air pollution, irritants, dust, fumes, tobacco smoke, and vapors may also irritate the airway and cause acute bronchitis. As viruses are the most common cause, antibiotics are not needed as they wouldn’t prove to be therapeutic. 

As the name suggests, acute bronchitis is a self-limiting condition that lasts from a week to ten days. Similar to the common cold, the patient might feel ‘under the weather’ with other vague symptoms such as headache, tiredness, and fatigue. The cough, however, might be persistent and linger around for 2-3 weeks but eventually resolves on its own.

How to Treat Acute Bronchitis?

As most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral infections, there is a specific treatment that is necessary. Bronchitis is very rarely caused by bacteria, hence, antibiotics are rarely required or prescribed. 

Conservative management with plenty of fluids and rest is usually what is advised by most doctors, but at times, the GP may have to prescribe antivirals to make the infection resolve faster. But, the treatment of acute bronchitis usually involves the following:

  • Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day
  • Get ample rest, especially within the first couple of days, so that the body fights off the infection quickly.
  • Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen can help to relieve headaches and malaise. Aspirin should be avoided in children with viral illnesses as it can cause liver damage.
  • Take warm showers
  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to add moisture to the surrounding air as it will reduce the irritation and help you breathe better.
  • Cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan are usually prescribed to help manage a nagging or hacking cough. If the cough progresses into whooping cough or persists despite conservative management, visit your GP at your earliest.
  • Sometimes, bronchodilators and steroids may be prescribed to help reduce the inflammation in the airways and make breathing easier.

Preventing Bronchitis

If you or anyone near you has a nagging, productive cough or symptoms of the flu, try to keep your distance and wash your hands if in close contact. If soap isn’t readily available, use a hand sanitizer on the go. 

It is better to avoid gatherings as a whole as you can contract the virus easily. If you suffer from recurrent bouts of bronchitis, especially in winter, run a humidifier. 

Steer clear of irritants, especially cigarette smoke and air pollutants, as well as triggers that may aggravate your cough.

Chronic Bronchitis ICD-10 code J42 

Long-standing inflammation of the bronchi is known as chronic bronchitis. This condition is homologous with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and is most commonly caused by cigarette smoking. Patients suffering from chronic bronchitis are more vulnerable to infections which may worsen their symptoms, causing acute bronchitis and possibly leading to pneumonia

Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed when there is no other explainable lung disease such as tuberculosis, accounting for the symptoms. It is suspected when the patient has a lingering productive cough for around three months in a year, for two consecutive years. This means that you must have a cough with phlegm lasting at least three months a year, for two years back-to-back to have your condition diagnosed as Chronic Bronchitis.

Heard of the infamous smoker’s cough? Well, now you know that it may be indicative of chronic bronchitis. If you find your cough to be worsening, it may be due to a superimposed acute infection or your disease progressing with possible lung damage. People who smoke are at a higher risk of lung infections as well as a refractory smoker’s cough

In chronic bronchitis, the airways become blocked due to extensive inflammation, thereby limiting the passage of air from the mouth to the lungs or vice versa. As the airways become restricted, breathing becomes labored and distressing, leading to breathlessness, wheezing, and subsequent use of abdominal muscles to breathe with force. 

Other than people who smoke tobacco, chronic bronchitis can also be caused by passive smoking – if you are living or working with someone who smokes – as well as air pollution. People with other lung diseases, mainly asthma, lung fibrosis (scarring of the lungs), tuberculosis, and upper respiratory tract infections such as sinusitis, are also vulnerable to suffering from chronic bronchitis. 

How to Treat Chronic Bronchitis?

The damage to airways in chronic bronchitis is irreversible, but you can prevent further inflammation by taking adequate measures for management. To treat chronic bronchitis, your doctor would need to diagnose the condition which is mostly done with pulmonary functions tests such as spirometry. Other tests such as blood work, imaging tests, and peak flow monitors can help diagnose as well as assess the response to treatment. 

Bronchodilators, steroids, long-term oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehab can help manage chronic bronchitis. But, none of this may help if you continue to smoke. Your doctor may recommend you group and support therapy or prescribe medications that may keep your nicotine drive at bay.

Is Bronchitis Contagious?

The viruses and bacteria causing acute bronchitis may spread as air droplets from one person to the other in close proximity. This doesn’t mean that after contracting the virus, you may suffer from bronchitis as well. The virus may be contagious, but its effects differ from person to person. For instance, if the virus is causing the flu and bronchitis in one person, it may cause just the flu in the other.

Similarly, chronic bronchitis is not contagious as it is largely caused by cigarette smoking and other pollutants already present in the environment.

When to See a Healthcare Provider for Bronchitis?

The symptoms of bronchitis vary from acute to chronic conditions of the disease. But, if anything, there will always be a productive cough with characteristically different time frames.

Some symptoms which require urgent diagnostic and therapeutic care include:

  • A fever greater than 102 degrees Fahrenheit or a fever that lasts for more than five days
  • A productive cough that hasn’t resolved or shown any kind of improvement in three-four weeks
  • Coughing up blood in sputum
  • Breathlessness and wheezing
  • Recurrent bouts of bronchitis

Final Takeaway

Some of the key symptoms to look out for if suspecting acute bronchitis are:

  • Productive Cough that lasts for 3 – 4 weeks in acute bronchitis, warranting a check-up if lasting longer without any improvement
  • Headache
  • Fever 
  • Malaise, lethargy, and loss of appetite
  • Sore throat
  • Chest discomfort or soreness
  • Breathlessness 
  • Runny nose if preceded by an upper respiratory tract infection

Acute bronchitis is manageable and treatable. If the symptoms fail to improve in 3-4 weeks, consult your primary care physician for ruling out other lung diseases and proper treatment. 

This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 03/30/2023

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  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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