How Contagious Is Bronchitis Exactly?
Bronchitis usually appears in an acute or chronic form. Depending on the clinical picture, it can be contagious or non-contagious.
Bronchitis is a pathology that could be contagious. Its main characteristic is the affection of the lower airways. It happens when the bronchial tubes of the lungs become inflamed due to infection or for other reasons, such as smoking or inhaling toxic gases and dust for a long time.
There are two types of bronchitis: chronic and acute. According to epidemiological studies, the former, of a prolonged nature and complex approach, can affect up to 11% of the population between the ages of 20 and 70. Therefore, it’s normal to wonder if bronchitis is contagious. Continue reading to find out.
To answer the above question, we must describe in detail the two types of bronchitis that might afflict people. In short, acute bronchitis is contagious, but chronic bronchitis isn’t. This statement requires a long list of nuances to take into account, so go on reading.
According to Medicina de Urgencias, a bibliographic source, more than 10 million people consult a doctor due to this condition. Thus, once can say it’s a relatively common pathology.
As cited by other specialized sources, the infectious agents that cause acute bronchitis are in 90% of cases viruses (adenovirus, influenza, parainfluenza, RSV, rhinovirus, bocavirus, coxsackie, or herpes simplex). In the remaining 10% it’s Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria. As you can see, this pathology has a rather contagious nature.
According to the references already cited, acute bronchitis follows a seasonal pattern due to its association with viral infections. That is, they occur much more during the winter months, as cold and dry climates are directly correlated to a higher viral transmission.
Take the influenza virus, for example, it seems to have a basic reproductive R0 value of around 1.3 (according to the New York Times). This means an infected person transmits the disease to 1.3 more people on average. Thus, acute bronchitis is subject to these types of epidemiological parameters.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of acute bronchitis can be summarized as:
- Chesty cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Light fever and chills
- Chest discomfort
Note that this variant of bronchitis is self-limited. It resolves 10 to 14 days after the first symptoms appear.
Despite being related to pathogens, acute bronchitis can also appear due to non-infectious processes (allergies, aspirations, or gastroesophageal reflux). Therefore, not all cases of acute bronchitis are contagious, but most are.
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Chronic bronchitis is contagious
The main characteristic of this long-term pathology is recurrent inflammation of the airway with secondary damage. As the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) explains, there’s continuous coughing that lasts for several months. In addition, it’s recurrent, as it can come back for two or more consecutive years.
This type of bronchitis has nothing to do with pathogens. Sources such as the Mayo Clinic claim that up to 75% of cases have to do with tobacco smoking. Other risk factors could be asthma, cystic fibrosis, age, or genetic predisposition. It’s also often part of a serious condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
According to the US National Library of Medicine, symptoms of chronic bronchitis are more severe and long-lasting than those of the acute variant. Among them:
- A continuous, frequent, and prolonged chesty cough
- Wheezing (a whistling or screeching sound when you breathe)
- Shortness of breath, especially during physical effort
- Pressure in the chest
Despite the fact that this pathology is usually associated with non-infectious agents, this isn’t always the case. This type of bronchitis can also be due to microorganisms, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, and Mycoplasma pneumoniae.
This risk of an added complication of respiratory tract infection occurs mainly in those who have undergone tracheostomies or in immunosuppressed patients.
So to answer the question of whether bronchitis is contagious or not: the acute variant is usually infectious in nature, but the chronic isn’t. Therefore, the means of prevention will depend on the type of condition from which you’re trying to protect yourself.
In any case, the Mayo Clinic has some general considerations to take into account. Some of them are:
- Avoid close contact with people who have the flu or other respiratory conditions. Viruses travel through saliva microparticles excreted during coughs and sneezes.
- Frequently wash your hands with soap, especially during winter and those times of high epidemiological risk.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth without washing your hands first.
- Get a flu shot, especially if you’re in a risk group — such as being over 65 years of age.
As you can see, these measures are aimed towards the prevention of acute bronchitis as it’s the one with a greater infectious nature. It should be clear at this point that not smoking is the best measure to avoid chronic bronchitis.
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Despite what many people believe, the two types of bronchitis don’t differ according to the causative agent, but rather by the duration of the inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Therefore, not all acute cases are due to pathogens, nor are all chronic cases due to smoking. There are exceptions though. However, typical flu viruses are generally a form of the acute version.
Finally, consult a doctor if you have a chesty cough that lasts for more than two weeks. This is because it could be a form of bronchitis or some other disease of the upper respiratory tract.