What Is Allergic Bronchitis?

More commonly known as chronic bronchitis

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Allergic bronchitis actually is not a medical term, although it is sometimes used by people to describe their breathing condition. This article covers chronic bronchitis, which is inflammation/swelling and irritation of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the air sacs in the lungs. This can cause mucus to build up and make it harder to take in oxygen and move out carbon dioxide.

Unlike acute bronchitis that lasts for a short period, chronic bronchitis occurs at least three months a year for at least two years in a row.

Chronic bronchitis falls under the umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a group of lung diseases that block airflow and create ongoing breathing-related problems.

A woman coughing, sitting on a couch, wearing a scarf, with a blanket in her lap.

Prostock-Studio / Getty Images

Symptoms

Symptoms often start out mild and get worse over time.

Symptoms can include:

  • A persistent cough that usually produces mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath (especially with physical activity)
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when breathing
  • Chest tightness/discomfort
  • Frequent respiratory illnesses such as cold or flu (in some people)
  • Recurring morning cough
  • Postnasal drip or sinus congestion
  • Bad breath
  • Trouble taking a deep breath

Symptoms of severe chronic bronchitis include:

  • Weight loss
  • Weakness in lower muscles
  • Swelling in ankles, feet, or legs
  • Bluish fingernails, lips, and skin because of lower oxygen levels
  • Wheezing and crackling sounds with breathing
  • Heart failure

When to Seek Emergency Treatment

When COPD symptoms suddenly get worse or become severe, it is called COPD exacerbation (or flare-up) and can be a medical emergency. Contact your doctor, go to the nearest emergency room, or call 911 if:

  • Your symptoms are more severe or prolonged than your usual day-to-day COPD symptoms.
  • You have extreme shortness of breath.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You become agitated, confused, or drowsy.

Causes

Exposure to cigarette and other tobacco smoke is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. At least 75% of people who have chronic bronchitis smoke or used to smoke. Secondhand smoke can also contribute to chronic bronchitis.

Other risk factors include:

  • Long-term exposure to irritants such as air pollution or work/environmental hazards (chemical fumes, dust, etc.)
  • Being over age 40
  • A family history of COPD
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (a genetic condition)
  • Frequent respiratory illnesses and infections

Diagnosis

To diagnose chronic bronchitis, a healthcare provider will do a physical examination that usually includes:

  • A discussion about symptoms
  • Getting a personal and family health history
  • Questions about lifestyle, work, environment, etc.
  • Listening to the lungs and other body examinations

Diagnostic tests may also be run.

Pulmonary Function Tests

These tests use tools or devices that you breathe into to measure the lungs’ ability to move air in and out of the lungs.

They may include:

  • Spirometry: A spirometer device is used in-office to measure how much air is inhaled, how much is exhaled, and how quickly you exhale.
  • Peak flow monitor: This measures the fastest speed you can blow air out of your lungs.

Other Tests for Chronic Bronchitis

Other tests and procedures that may be used in diagnosing chronic bronchitis include:

  • Arterial blood gas: A blood test used to check the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and the acidity of the blood
  • Pulse oximetry: Involves a small sensor taped or clipped onto a finger or toe that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood
  • Chest X-ray: Takes pictures of the chest, lungs, and other tissues to look for abnormalities
  • CT scan: A combination of X-rays and computer technology used to make images of the body that are more detailed than an X-ray alone

Treatment

First and foremost, treatment for chronic bronchitis begins with removing the exposure to the irritant or irritants causing the problem. In most cases, this is tobacco smoke such as cigarettes.

Chronic bronchitis cannot be cured, but it can be managed.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Quit smoking (if you are a smoker).
  • Avoid secondhand smoke and other lung irritants (this may mean a change in housing, job, or other environmental factors).
  • Consult with a healthcare provider about a nutritious meal plan and how to safely exercise for overall health benefits.

Medications

Medications for chronic bronchitis include:

Bronchodilators

Usually taken through an inhaler, these medications relax the muscles around the airways, which opens the airways and makes breathing easier. The inhaler may also contain steroids to reduce inflammation in more severe cases.

One type of bronchodilator, beta-adrenergic agonists, comes in short-acting form and long-acting form.

Types of short-acting beta-adrenergic agonists include:

  • Ventolin, Proair, Proventil (albuterol)
  • Xopenex (levalbuterol)
  • Metaproterenol
  • Bricanyl (terbutaline)

Types of long-acting beta-adrenergic agonists include:

  • Salmeterol (a component of Advair)
  • Performomist (formoterol)
  • Arcapta (indacaterol)
  • Brovana (arformoterol)

Symbicort is a two-in-one medication that combines formoterol with an inhaled corticosteroid known as budesonide.

Vaccines

People with chronic bronchitis should get the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia vaccines to help avoid the serious problems of these diseases for which they are at higher risk.

Antibiotics

While not used to treat chronic bronchitis directly, antibiotics can be used to treat a lung infection that can be triggered by or aggravate chronic bronchitis.

Oral Medications

Oral medications are sometimes prescribed to open airways and help clear away mucus.

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy is also known as oxygen and supplemental oxygen.

Oxygen therapy involves oxygen being administered through tubes resting in the nose, a face mask, or a tube placed in the trachea (windpipe). The goal of oxygen therapy is to increase the amount of oxygen the lungs receive and deliver to the blood, thus increasing blood oxygen levels in people whose blood oxygen is too low.

Oxygen therapy can be administered in the hospital or given at home, depending on needs and accessibility. It can be for short-term or long-term use.

The oxygen is supplied either from a storage tank that is filled professionally and delivered or using a device called an oxygen concentrator, which uses oxygen in the air.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is a supervised program for people who have lung conditions or breathing problems.

The program may include:

  • Exercise training
  • Health education
  • Breathing techniques
  • Disease management training
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Psychological counseling

Pulmonary rehabilitation can be done in the hospital or a clinic, or physical therapy and/or breathing exercises may be done at home.

Activity monitors or smartphone-based lessons or monitoring may also be used.

The personal pulmonary rehabilitation plan is tailored to your needs by a team of healthcare professionals.

Lung Transplant

This procedure, which involves replacing diseased lungs with healthy donor lungs, can be used as a last resort for people who have severe chronic bronchitis.

Prognosis

Although chronic bronchitis/COPD cannot be cured, quality of life can be improved through symptom management.

Outlook for the future depends on the symptoms, the severity of the condition, how well the lungs are working, and response and commitment to the treatment plan.

Coping

In addition to a medical treatment plan, ways to help manage chronic bronchitis at home include:

  • Exercise: Start slow and build up, aiming for at least 2.5 hours of physical activity a week. Always check with your healthcare provider before starting or increasing new physical activities.
  • Breathing techniques: For example, breathing through pursed lips can help reduce shortness of breath.
  • Develop healthy eating habits: Regular, healthy meals are important for overall health. Using bronchodilators about an hour before eating can make it easier to eat. Eating several small meals instead of three large ones may be easier on your body. Save beverages until the end of the meal, and avoid foods that are hard to chew.

A Word From Verywell

Without proper treatment, chronic bronchitis can worsen and greatly impact your quality of life.

Thankfully, although it can't be cured, treatments such as medications, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation can help keep symptoms at bay and allow you to continuing doing the things you love.

If you think you might have chronic bronchitis, it is important to see a healthcare provider promptly to slow the progression of the condition.

The best thing you can do to both prevent and treat chronic bronchitis is to quit smoking (or never start) and avoid others when they are smoking.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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