Acute bronchitis

Also known as bronchitis, chest infection or chest cold

Key points about bronchitis

  • Acute bronchitis is swelling and inflammation inside the main airways of your lungs (bronchi), causing them to produce more mucous.
  • Your body tries to get rid of the extra mucous by coughing.
  • The main symptom is a chesty cough, with green or yellow mucous. You may also have symptoms of a cold.
  • It's most commonly caused by a virus and you should start to feel better after a few days, but the cough may last for a few weeks longer.
  • See your doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you notice signs of a more serious chest infection, such as shortness of breath and high fever, or if you feel very unwell.
Man coughing into his hands
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There are 2 types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.

This page covers acute bronchitis (chest infection) in adults. For information on chronic bronchitis (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD) see COPD. For information on chest infection in babies and children under 2 years of age see bronchiolitis.

Diagram showing the trachea muscle when healthy and when thickened due to bronchitis

Image credit: 123rf

What causes acute bronchitis?

The main cause of acute bronchitis is a virus. This is often the same virus that causes a common cold, which is why bronchitis often occurs after a cold. Acute bronchitis is more common in winter. 

Acute bronchitis can affect people of all ages. For information on chest infection in babies under 6 months of age see bronchiolitis.

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis? 

The main symptom is a chesty cough, with green or yellow mucous. You may also get cold symptoms, such as:

  • mild fever
  • sore throat
  • aches and pains
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • tiredness.

You’ll usually start to feel better after a few days, but the cough may remain for a few weeks.

If you or a family member is short of breath, coughing up blood, has a high fever or feels very unwell you need to see your doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 straight away. These are the signs that a chest infection is more serious — it could be pneumonia or other serious conditions.

You don’t usually need to see your doctor if you have acute bronchitis as your body will fight the virus and get better by itself.

You can help yourself feel better by:

  • resting for a few days
  • drinking plenty of fluids, mainly water, to help prevent dehydration
  • using an extra pillow to elevate your head as you sleep
  • quitting if you smoke
  • using your inhaler if you have asthma or another chronic lung condition.

See your doctor if your cough lasts for more than 3 weeks, or you have a high fever or pain when coughing.

Usually, the symptoms of acute bronchitis go away by themselves after a few days and don't require medication. However, the following medicines may help to ease your symptoms:

Pain relievers

Medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will help to ease your muscle aches and pains and headache, and reduce fever. 

Cough medicines

You might want to take cough medicines but there is little evidence that they work. If you do, choose an expectorant medication as this is designed to help clear mucous from your lungs. 

Avoid cough medicines that reduce your urge to cough (suppressants). These may help if you have an irritating, dry cough, especially at night, but they should not be used if your cough is chesty. 

As an alternative, try making a drink of honey, lemon and hot water, which can help soothe a sore throat and ease your cough.

Read more about cough medicines for adults.

Cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under 6 years old.

For children aged 6–12 years old, only use cough and cold medicines that say on the label they can be used for that age group. Read more about cough and cold medicines in children.


Antibiotics are not often used to treat acute bronchitis because they have no effect on viruses, which are usually the cause of bronchitis.

However, if your doctor thinks you also have a bacterial infection in your airways, you may need to take antibiotics.


If you are wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways, such as ventolin, the same medicine you may have heard of for asthma treatment.

Bronchitis can’t always be prevented but some things might help:

  • Washing your hands can prevent the spread of viruses that can cause bronchitis.
  • Avoid smoking or other lung irritants.
  • Get the annual flu vaccination.

The following links provide further information on bronchitis. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

What is acute bronchitis?(external link)(external link) Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ
Chest infections (bronchitis)(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora
Bronchitis(external link)(external link) NHS, UK


Virus action plan (adult)(external link) He Ako Hiringa, NZ, 2023 te reo Māori(external link)Samoan(external link)Tongan(external link), Arabic [PDF, 188 KB], Hindi(external link), Chinese (simplified)(external link)
Virus action plan (child over 6 months(external link) He Ako Hiringa, NZ, 2023 te reo Māori(external link)Samoan(external link)Tongan(external link), Arabic [PDF, 214 KB], Hindi(external link), Chinese (simplified)(external link)
Bronchitis – what causes bronchitis?(external link) Choosing Wisely, NZ, 2016
Bronchitis – how is bronchitis diagnosed?(external link) Choosing Wisely, NZ, 2016
Bronchitis – medicines and treatments)(external link) Choosing Wisely, NZ, 2016
Bronchitis – what are the symptoms of bronchitis?(external link) Choosing Wisely, NZ, 2016
What is acute bronchitis?(external link) Asthma Respiratory Foundation NZ, 2010


  1. Respiratory tract infections (self-limiting) – reducing antibiotic prescribing(external link)(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2015 
  2. Acute cough illness (acute bronchitis)(external link) Centers for Disease Control, US
  3. Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, et al. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents.(external link)(external link) Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-6.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB

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