8 Bronchitis Medications Your Doctor May Prescribe

Updated in December 2023

Bronchitis medications, like anti-inflammatories, bronchodilators or cough suppressants, can help manage bronchitis symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or wheezing. These medications act in several ways, including reducing bronchi inflammation, facilitating phlegm elimination or helping to open the airways to facilitate breathing.

Bronchitis is characterized by inflammation of the main airways that connect to the lungs, known as the bronchi. The bronchi are responsible for transporting oxygen to and from the lungs, and can become irritated and swollen for several reasons. This can cause symptoms such as a dry cough or phlegm, wheezing or shortness of breath.

In most cases, bronchitis is treated at home, with rest and plenty of fluids, without any need for medication. However, if the bronchitis does not resolve with conservative measures, or if it develops into a chronic bronchitis (which is characterized by symptoms lasting over 3 months), treatment with medication may be necessary. Medication for bronchitis should always be prescribed by your doctor.

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The most common medications used to treat bronchitis are: 

1. Analgesics

Analgesics, like acetaminophen, are used to relieve symptoms such as fever, general malaise or body aches.

These medicatinos can be used to treat acute or chronic bronchitis, as prescribed by your doctor. 

2. Anti-inflammatories

Anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen, are indicated to reduce bronchial inflammation from acute bronchitis. They can help to relieve symptoms such as headaches or body aches.

It is important to note that people with asthma should not take ibuprofen or any non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as aspirin, naproxen, nimesulide, as these can worsen asthma symptoms.

3. Mucolytics

Mucolytics, such as acetylcysteine or bromhexine, may be prescribed by your doctor to help relieve coughs. They act by liquefying the phlegm and promoting its elimination.

These medications can be used in cases of acute or chronic bronchitis. They should be used with caution in children under 6 years of age, and only under medical supervision.

Furthermore, you should drink plenty of water when taking mucolytics to make this medicine more effective, as increased water intake can thin the mucus and eliminate it more easily.

4. Expectorants

Expectorants, such as guaifenesin or ambroxol, can also thin-out the phlegm to make it easier to eliminate. These medications also have antitussive action, meaning they can also relieve coughs.

These medications may be prescribed by your doctor for the treatment of bronchitis, particularly when it is chronic.

5. Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan or clobutinol, help decrease dry coughs by acting directly on the brain in the region that controls the cough reflex.

Another type of cough suppressant that that your doctor may recommend is codeine. This is an opioid medication, which also acts on the brain to reduce coughing.

These medications should always be prescribed by a doctor and can be used for acute or chronic bronchitis with dry cough, without phlegm. They are not advised when there is any suspicion of a respiratory bacterial infection.

6. Antibiotics

Antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or erythromycin, are indicated for several reasons, including:

  • chronic bronchitis
  • when there is a risk for a bacterial infection that may develop into pneumonia (particularly in premature babies and older adults) 
  • patients with a history of bronchial, heart, lung, kidney or liver disease
  • patients with a weakened immune system
  • patients with cystic fibrosis.

For acute bronchitis, treatment with antibiotics is not recommended, as this type of bronchitis tends to be viral in nature and antibiotics will not be effective. However, antibiotics may be prescribed in some cases of acute bronchitis, particularly in patients with malnutrition, severe anemia, heart disease or in older adults.

Antibiotics may be prescribed in cases of acute bronchitis if the the patient presents with certain symptoms, like a fever above 38.5ºC, shortness of breath and phlegm with pus.

7. Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators, such as salbutamol, formoterol or ipratropium bromide, can help to open the bronchi and facilitate breathing. These may be prescribed for cases of chronic bronchitis, as a continuous treatment or during a bronchitis flare-up. They can also be prescribed for acute bronchitis, especially when the patients presents with wheezing when breathing or airway obstruction.

These medicines are used, in most cases, through inhalers and act by relaxing the muscle along the the walls of the small airways. They open these passages and provide relief from chest tightness and coughing to make breathing easier.

Bronchodilators can also be taken through a nebulizer, which is particularly recommended for older adults or patients with reduced respiratory capacity.

8. Corticosteroids

In some cases, the doctor may prescribe corticosteroids to be taken orally, (e.g. prednisone) or inhaled through puffers (e.g. fluticasone or budesonide) to reduce lung inflammation and irritation.

Corticosteroid inhalers will also often have a bronchodilator in its composition, such as salmeterol or formoterol. These are long-acting bronchodilators and are generally used as continuous treatment.

Home remedies

Home remedies for bronchitis, such as ginger tea or eucalyptus tea, contain substances with anti-inflammatory or expectorant action. They can help to relieve bronchial inflammation or help to facilitate phlegm elimination. These home remedies can be a great complement to your doctor's prescribed treatment. Learn more about home remedies for bronchitis.