Viral or Bacterial Bronchitis with Wheezing (Adult)

Front view of man showing respiratory system. Inset shows airway..

Bronchitis is an infection of the air passages. It often occurs during a cold and is usually caused by a virus. Symptoms include cough with mucus (phlegm) and low-grade fever. This illness is contagious during the first few days and is spread through the air by coughing and sneezing, or by direct contact (touching the sick person and then touching your own eyes, nose, or mouth).

If there is a lot of inflammation, air flow is restricted. The air passages may also go into spasm, especially if you have asthma. This causes wheezing and difficulty breathing even in people who do not have asthma.

Bronchitis usually lasts 7 to 14 days. The wheezing should improve with treatment during the first week. An inhaler is often prescribed to relax the air passages and stop wheezing. Antibiotics will be prescribed if your doctor thinks there is also a secondary bacterial infection.

Home care

  • If symptoms are severe, rest at home for the first 2 to 3 days. When you go back to your usual activities, don't let yourself get too tired.

  • Dont s'moke. Also avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke.

  • You may use over-the-counter medicine to control fever or pain, unless another medicine was prescribed. Note: If you have chronic liver or kidney disease or have ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines. Also talk to your provider if you are taking medicine to prevent blood clots.) Aspirin should never be given to anyone younger than 18 years of age who is ill with a viral infection or fever. It may cause severe liver or brain damage.

  • Your appetite may be poor, so a light diet is fine. Stay well hydrated by drinking 6 to 8 glasses of fluids per day (such as water, soft drinks, sports drinks, juices, tea, or soup). Extra fluids will help loosen secretions in the nose and lungs.

  • Over-the-counter cough, cold, and sore-throat medicines will not shorten the length of the illness, but they may be helpful to reduce symptoms. (Note: Don't use decongestants if you have high blood pressure.)

  • If you were given an inhaler, use it exactly as directed. If you need to use it more often than prescribed, your condition may be worsening. If this happens, contact your healthcare provider.

  • If prescribed, finish all antibiotic medicine, even if you are feeling better after only a few days.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. If you had an X-ray or ECG (electrocardiogram), a specialist will review it. You will be notified of any new findings that may affect your care.

If you are age 65 or older, or if you have a chronic lung disease or condition that affects your immune system, or you smoke, ask your healthcare provider about getting a pneumococcal vaccine and a yearly flu shot (influenza vaccine).

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Coughing up increasing amounts of colored sputum

  • Weakness, drowsiness, headache, facial pain, ear pain, or a stiff neck

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur.

  • Coughing up blood

  • Worsening weakness, drowsiness, headache, or stiff neck

  • Increased wheezing not helped with medication, shortness of breath, or pain with breathing

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