Background: The purpose of this review is to present the evidence for the diagnosis and treatment of cough due to acute bronchitis and make recommendations that will be useful for clinical practice. Acute bronchitis is one of the most common diagnoses made by primary care clinicians and emergency department physicians. It is an acute respiratory infection with a normal chest radiograph that is manifested by cough with or without phlegm production that lasts for up to 3 weeks. Respiratory viruses appear to be the most common cause of acute bronchitis; however, the organism responsible is rarely identified in clinical practice because viral cultures and serologic assays are not routinely performed. Fewer than 10% of patients will have a bacterial infection diagnosed as the cause of bronchitis. The diagnosis of acute bronchitis should be made only when there is no clinical or radiographic evidence of pneumonia, and the common cold, acute asthma, or an exacerbation of COPD have been ruled out as the cause of cough. Acute bronchitis is a self-limited respiratory disorder, and when the cough persists for >3 weeks, other diagnoses must be considered.
Methods: Recommendations for this review were obtained from data using a National Library of Medicine (PubMed) search dating back to 1950, which was performed in August 2004. The search was limited to literature published in the English language and human studies, using search terms such as "cough," "acute bronchitis," and "acute viral respiratory infection."
Results: Unfortunately, most previous controlled trials guiding the treatment of acute bronchitis have not vigorously differentiated acute bronchitis and the common cold, and also have not distinguished between an acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis and acute asthma as a cause of acute cough. For patients with the putative diagnosis of acute bronchitis, routine treatment with antibiotics is not justified and should not be offered. Antitussive agents are occasionally useful and can be offered as therapy for short-term symptomatic relief of coughing, but there is no role for inhaled bronchodilator or expectorant therapy. Children and adult patients with confirmed and probable whooping cough should receive a macrolide antibiotic and should be isolated for 5 days from the start of treatment; early treatment within the first few weeks will diminish the coughing paroxysms and prevent spread of the disease; the patient is unlikely to respond to treatment beyond this period.
Conclusion: Acute bronchitis is an acute respiratory infection that is manifested by cough and, at times, sputum production that lasts for no more than 3 weeks. This syndrome should be distinguished from the common cold, an acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis, and acute asthma as the cause of acute cough. The widespread use of antibiotics for the treatment of acute bronchitis is not justified, and vigorous efforts to curtail their use should be encouraged.