Could acute bronchitis or asthma be behind your coughing and wheezing?

Reviewed by Theresa H. Care Delivery Manager & Family Nurse Practitioner

Time saver 4 min read

Breathing. As human beings, it’s something we do constantly and without much thought. That is, until something seems off. Symptoms like coughing and mild wheezing can make you aware of every breath. These symptoms can also leave you feeling run down and tired – making it hard to go about daily life.

A cough can have many causes so it can be hard to know the source. What’s really behind your symptoms? Two common conditions that could be the source of your coughing and mild wheezing are bronchitis and asthma.

While these conditions both affect the lung airways and share some common symptoms, their causes - and the related treatments - are very different. Keep reading to learn more about bronchitis and asthma, how to treat uncomfortable symptoms and when symptoms may be a sign of something more serious.

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Could it be COVID? A fever, stuffy nose, cough and shortness of breath are common COVID symptoms. To get to the bottom of what’s causing your symptoms, get tested for COVID. Testing is widely available at pharmacies and healthcare clinics.

Inflamed airways: The bronchitis and asthma connection

When you breathe, air travels in and out of your lungs through little channels called bronchial tubes or bronchioles. Normally, these tubes allow air to flow freely and without much effort. But a virus, infection, allergy or other irritant can cause the lining within these tubes to become inflamed. When this happens, airways can swell and narrow. The result? It feels a little harder to breathe and you’re left wheezing and coughing.

Acute bronchitis: Common causes and symptoms

You may develop acute bronchitis if you catch a cold or some other respiratory virus that settles into your chest and lungs. A dry or wet cough that lingers beyond the length of a typical cold is a telltale sign of acute bronchitis. If you have bronchitis you may also have a mild headache and feel a little achy.

The good news is that bronchitis typically resolves on its own within 1-3 weeks and doesn’t require treatment with antibiotics.

Asthma: Common causes and symptoms

Unlike acute bronchitis, which resolves fairly quickly, asthma is a chronic condition. If you have asthma, your symptoms can flare when you do come into contact with something that causes your airways to swell and narrow. Common asthma triggers include exercise, smoke, pollen, chemicals and even stress. The classic symptoms of asthma are a cough, shortness of breath that comes and goes and wheezing.

Common Symptoms
Acute bronchitis Asthma
Cough Cough
Chest muscle soreness Chest tightness
Mild shortness of breath (less common) Shortness of breath (more common)
Mild wheezing (less common) Wheezing (more common)
Fatigue Difficulty sleeping at night due to symptoms
Mild headache
Mild body aches

How can I treat acute bronchitis symptoms?

If you think you have bronchitis, you don’t need to be seen in-person and get a chest X-ray unless you have other worrisome symptoms. It’s important to know that acute bronchitis is typically a viral illness versus bacterial. This means there’s no quick cure and antibiotics won’t help. In fact taking antibiotics for viral infections can be dangerous and lead to antibiotic resistance.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to manage acute bronchitis symptoms and feel better while your immune system fights off the virus that’s causing your chest congestion and cough.

Managing bronchitis symptoms at home

  • Thin mucus and relieve nasal pressure – Help nasal passages drain and make it easier to cough up phlegm by taking Mucinex® or a generic over-the-counter medication with the ingredient guaifenesin.
  • Quiet a cough – Stop nighttime coughing with a cough suppressant like Delsym® or a generic over-the-counter medication that contains the ingredient dextromethorphan.
  • Cool a fever – Take Tylenol® or a generic brand with the ingredient acetaminophen.
  • Relieve pain – Take Advil® or a generic brand with the ingredient ibuprofen. You can also take Tylenol® or a generic brand with the ingredient acetaminophen.

In addition to taking over-the-counter medications to manage symptoms, it’s also important to drink plenty of water and get lots of rest and sleep. Also, remember that the virus causing your coughs can be passed on to others so it’s a good idea to stay home and isolate when you can.

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The most annoying thing about bronchitis is a nagging cough. It can make you feel miserable during the day and keep you up at night. Thankfully, if needed, there are prescription medications that can help open your airways and get a cough under control.

What’s the best way to treat mild asthma?

If you have asthma symptoms, it’s important to get a diagnosis and get to the bottom of what may be triggering your asthma. While asthma is typically first diagnosed in children, adults can also be diagnosed with asthma. Because asthma is a chronic condition, if you’re experiencing asthma symptoms, it’s a good idea to be seen in-person to be evaluated and get a formal diagnosis.

Thankfully, mild cases of asthma can often be controlled by avoiding asthma triggers and using daily or rescue inhalers as prescribed.

When breathing symptoms don’t go away

If your cough or breathing symptoms don’t improve or get worse, see a provider in person or visit your nearest emergency department. Symptoms like a high fever, shortness of breath and tightness or pain in the chest can be a sign of more serious conditions that require immediate medical attention.

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