Health A-Z

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Most cases of acute bronchitis do not require medical treatment. People diagnosed with acute bronchitis will be told to rest and drink plenty of fluids to keep the mucus thin, watery and easy to cough up. Warm, moist air also can loosen sputum and make coughing and breathing easier. Because of that, many physicians recommend at least one of the following for people with bronchitis:

  • Using a vaporizer or humidifier

  • Standing in or near a hot shower

  • Drinking hot tea or soup

  • Breathing in the steam from a sink or pot filled with hot water. You can catch more of the steam by tenting a towel over your head while bending over the water. For safety reasons, do not breathe from a pot of boiling water that is still on the stove.

If you have a fever, most physicians will recommend taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to reduce fever. However, aspirin should not be given to children under age 19 to avoid the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but serious, potentially fatal illness that can occur when a child with a fever takes aspirin.

People who smoke should avoid smoking during the illness to reduce irritation to the airways.

If bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection and doesn't get better on its own, an antibiotic may be prescribed. Antibiotics will be given only when there is a strong suspicion that the bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection. That's because of rising concerns about antibiotic resistance, in which bacteria evolve in ways that allow them to survive antibiotics. This problem is increasing and is caused, in part, by antibiotics being used incorrectly and when they are not needed.

In some cases, doctors may prescribe a bronchodilator, an inhaled medication that helps the airways to open. These are the same medications used by some people with asthma to ease breathing during an asthma attack.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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