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Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Expert Pediatrics Q&A

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Updated April 09, 2014

Q. My son has been coughing all week and I think he has bronchitis. We had a play date with another child last week and he was coughing at the time. His mom said he wasn't contagious because it was just bronchitis. Is bronchitis contagious? Karen, Dallas, Texas

A. Surprisingly, there is a lot of confusion about bronchitis, and not just about whether or not it is contagious.

It can help to clear up some of this confusion if you first learn a little bit about bronchitis.

And yes, bronchitis is usually, but not always, contagious.

Acute v. Chronic Bronchitis

There are actually two types of bronchitis -- acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis refers to a sudden case of bronchitis that usually lasts a days or weeks, but may linger for a few months. These children usually began with regular cold symptoms, including a runny nose, sore throat, low grade fever, and cough, but then develop a productive cough (a cough that produces sputum). They may also have wheezing, but usually won't have any trouble breathing, unlike children with pneumonia.

If the child develops a chronic cough and his symptoms linger for more than three months, then the child may have chronic bronchitis. This is more common in adults who smoke though. Parents should likely suspect asthma if a child has a chronic cough and not just chronic bronchitis.

What Causes Bronchitis?

As bronchitis usually starts as a cold, the same viruses that can cause a cold can cause bronchitis, including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and influenza. In addition to causing walking pneumonia, Mycoplasma pneumoniae is also thought to be a common cause of bronchitis.

Unlike a typical cold, when you have bronchitis, the infection causes inflammation of the mucous membranes in the bronchial tubes that lead to your lungs.

So, Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Since acute bronchitis is usually caused by the same viruses that can cause a cold, then you can suspect that it is just as contagious as a cold. That means that your child should stay home from school and other activities if he has a fever, constant coughing, or doesn't feel well enough to do his regular activities. Even though he is contagious, he can likely continue his regular activities, including going to school if he doesn't have a fever and feels well enough to attend, but he should take steps to make himself less contagious to others, such as:

  • covering his mouth and nose properly when he coughs or sneezes, using a clean tissue or upper sleeve (elbow) and not his hands. If your child coughs into his hands, then he simply puts his germs onto everything he touches around him.
  • washing his hands frequently
  • not sharing items, especially cups, water bottles, and glasses with other children

Although children with simple viral infections can usually attend school and day care, whether they should participate in less essential activities is more controversial. Many parents would postpone a play date, sleepover, or after-school activity if their child had a runny nose, sore throat or was coughing.



Source:

Cohen & Powderly: Infectious Diseases, 2nd ed.

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