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The bronchial tubes, or bronchi, connect the windpipe to the lungs. When the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed or infected, the condition is called bronchitis. Bronchitis reduces the amount of air and oxygen that can flow into the lungs and causes a heavy mucus or phlegm to form in the airways.

Bronchitis is considered to be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is a shorter illness that commonly develops after a cold or viral infection such as the flu. It generally consists of a cough with green sputum, chest discomfort or soreness, fever, and sometimes shortness of breath. Acute bronchitis usually lasts a few days or weeks.

Chronic bronchitis is characterised by a persistent, mucus-producing cough on most days of the month, three months of a year for two successive years in absence of a secondary cause of the cough. People with chronic bronchitis have varying degrees of breathing difficulties, and symptoms may get better and worsen during different parts of the year.

What causes bronchitis?

Bronchitis is caused by viruses, bacteria, and other particles that irritate the bronchial tubes.

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection in the bronchi - often the same viruses that causes cold and flu. Bronchitis is actually part of the immune response to fighting against the infection, since additional swelling occurs in the bronchial tubes as the immune system's actions generate mucus. In addition to viruses, bacteria, exposure to tobacco smoke, exposure to pollutants or solvents, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also cause acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is most commonly caused by cigarette smoking. However, it can also be the result of continuous attacks of acute bronchitis. Air pollution, dust, toxic gases, and other industrial fumes are known to be responsible for the condition.

Who gets bronchitis?

People at increased risk of getting bronchitis and increased risk of having more severe symptoms include:

  • Smokers

  • People who are exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke

  • People with weakened immune systems

  • The elderly and infants

  • People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Those who are exposed to irritants at work, such as chemical fumes from ammonia, strong acids, chlorine, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide or bromine

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

Signs and symptoms for both acute and chronic bronchitis include:

  • Inflammation or swelling of the bronchi

  • Coughing

  • Production of clear, white, yellow, grey, or green mucus (sputum)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wheezing

  • Fatigue

  • Fever and chills

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Blocked or runny nose

Acute bronchitis usually results in a nagging cough that lingers for several weeks even after the bronchitis resolves. Chronic bronchitis's long-term inflammation leads to scarring of the bronchial tubes and airways, which leads to production of excessive mucus. Additional symptoms of chronic bronchitis include frequent respiratory infections and a cough that is worse in the mornings and in damp weather.