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Bronchitis, a term that refers to inflammation in the bronchi or larger airways of the lungs, may be due to infection or other immune processes in the lungs, not asthma. While the symptoms of bronchitis may overlap with those of asthma, bronchitis does not typically cause the airway obstruction that is the characteristic of asthma. An asthmatic cough is usually productive, that is, sputum is brought up, whereas a bronchial cough is nonproductive, with no sputum.
The confusion between bronchitis and asthma is fertile ground for misunderstanding and imprecise language. For example, "bronchial asthma" is actually a redundant term since the bronchi are always involved in asthma.
Some doctors refer to "asthmatic bronchitis" or "reactive airway disease" when a patient is having trouble breathing and perhaps wheezing, but they are not sure if the patient is suffering from an ongoing condition. This is often the case with infants and small children who start to wheeze when suffering from viral infections such as respiratory syncytial virus. Many may wheeze just once when they've had a viral respiratory infection, or occasionally over a period of one or two years. Some, however, do go on to develop classic asthma.
Asthma is a long-term, chronic condition, whereas bronchitis is an isolated incident occurring in response to acute infection and will most likely resolve on it's own. Watch pulmonologist Brian Gelbman, MD, explain the difference in these conditions.
This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.