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How Contagious Is Bronchitis?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 17, 2023

Have you ever heard someone with a cough claim “I’m coughing so hard, it must be bronchitis!” Well, they might be right. If they also have symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, a sensation in the chest that feels like rattling, a low-grade fever, poor quality sleep, a soreness in the back of the throat, and just a general feeling of overall illness, then it may indeed be bronchitis. If that’s the case, you may want to stay away from them.


While it may seem like bronchitis is a fairly straightforward ailment, it’s a little more complicated than that. For starters, there are actually two types of bronchitis that you can contract. Type one is called acute bronchitis. Specifically it’s an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are the passages that allow air to reach your lungs. This type of bronchitis causes all of the symptoms listed above but also includes general fatigue and mucus production. The second type of bronchitis is called chronic bronchitis. This is also an inflammation of the bronchial tubes and causes much of the same symptoms as acute bronchitis.

What’s the difference between the two types of bronchitis?


For starters, what causes them is not the same. Acute bronchitis generally comes from a viral infection and isn’t helped by antibiotics. It can also be caused by a bacterial infection and often happens in people with weakened immune systems or people who smoke. It can also be caused by second-hand exposure to tobacco smoke, dust, vapor, fumes, or air pollution. In this case, avoiding those irritants can make the condition better. On the other hand, chronic bronchitis is caused only by exposure to the types of irritants listed above rather than by a bacterial or viral infection. It can last for a few months or more and won’t be healed completely until you are no longer exposed to what is irritating you. So, for example, if you smoke and that’s what’s causing your chronic bronchitis, then quitting may readily resolve the problem.

The heart of the matter


If a friend claims to have a case of bronchitis, or is simply not sure if that cough they’ve had is, in fact, bronchitis, should you stay away from them? Do you have to decline an invitation to their house party because you might catch what they have? The answer is not so simple.


If you know someone’s bronchitis is because of daily exposure to irritants, such as a construction worker that may be around considerable amounts of dust and debris, or is a person who smokes, then you don’t have to worry. This kind of bronchitis is not contagious. On the other hand, if you know their bronchitis is acute (caused by a viral or bacterial infection), then it’s a good idea to avoid them until they recover. Acute bronchitis can be spread when someone coughs or by touching surfaces. Unfortunately, if the bronchitis is viral, antibiotics won’t help, but it should go away on its own over the course of a few days.


Preventing infection


Standard hygiene practices, of course, are the best way to prevent infection. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, particularly after coming in contact with surfaces you suspect may have been infected. If you don’t have a source of soap and water easily available, use a hand sanitizer until you’re able to wash your hands properly. Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, particularly if you haven’t had a chance to disinfect yourself. And, of course, try and avoid contact with someone who has acute bronchitis if it’s at all possible.

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