Acute bronchitis develops suddenly. It generally lasts less than 2 weeks. Most healthy people who develop bronchitis get better without any complications. Acute bronchitis usually begins with the symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose, sneezing and dry cough. However, the cough soon becomes deep and painful. Coughing brings up a greenish yellow sputum.
These symptoms may be accompanied by a fever of up to 102°F (38.8°C). Wheezing after coughing is common. In uncomplicated acute bronchitis, the fever and most other symptoms, except the cough, disappear after three to five days. Coughing may continue for several weeks. Acute bronchitis is often complicated by a bacterial infection, in which case the fever and a general feeling of illness persists. To be cured, the bacterial infection should be treated with antibiotics.
Chronic bronchitis develops slowly over time. The cells that line the respiratory system contain fine, hair-like outgrowths from the cell called cilia. Normally, the cilia of many cells beat rhythmically to move mucus along the airways. When smoke or other irritants are inhaled, the cilia become paralyzed or snap off. When this occurs, the cilia are no longer able to move mucus, and the airways become inflamed, narrowed, and clogged. This leads to difficulty in breathing and can progress to the life-threatening disease emphysema.
A mild cough, sometimes called smokers’ cough, is usually the first visible sign of chronic bronchitis. Coughing brings up phlegm, although the amount varies considerably from person to person. Wheezing and shortness of breath may accompany the cough. Diagnostic tests show a decrease in lung function. As the disease advances, breathing becomes difficult and activity decreases. The body does not get enough oxygen, leading to changes in the composition of the blood.