What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes

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Chronic bronchitis refers to inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is an umbrella term for lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and get worse over time.

The bronchial tubes carry air to and from the air sacs in your lungs, also called alveoli. The irritation of the tubes causes a slippery liquid called mucus to build up. This mucus and swelling of the tubes make it harder for your lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your body.

About 10 million people—mostly aged 44 to 65—are affected by chronic bronchitis. Roughly three-quarters of the people around the world diagnosed with COPD struggle with chronic bronchitis.

This condition is usually caused by prolonged exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and airways, such as cigarette smoke. Therefore, treatment for this condition includes a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and oxygen therapy. In serious cases, a lung transplant may be needed.

Senior man coughing

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Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms

You may not have any symptoms at first, but as the disease gets worse, your symptoms will become more severe. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • A frequent cough that produces mucus
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
  • Tightness in your chest

In severe cases, chronic bronchitis can cause weight loss, weakness in your lower muscles, and swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.

This may sound like a lot of other conditions, such as:

  • Asthma
  • Emphysema (another type of COPD where the air sacs are damaged)
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sinusitis
  • Tuberculosis

What sets chronic bronchitis apart from these other conditions is that your productive cough bothers you most days for at least three months over the past two years.

If you have a frequent or lasting cough, especially one that produces mucus, you should see your doctor.

When to Call 911

If your cough is bothering you to the point where you cannot catch your breath, hear a loud wheezing sound when you breathe, or feel chest pain, you should go to the emergency room or call 911.

Causes

The cause of chronic bronchitis is usually long-term exposure to irritants that damage your lungs and airways. Cigarette smoke is the main cause of this disease in the United States. Pipe, cigar, and other types of tobacco smoke can also cause chronic bronchitis.

Exposure to other inhaled irritants can contribute to chronic bronchitis, including secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dusts from the environment or workplace.

Rarely, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can play a role in causing chronic bronchitis. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a protein made by the liver that protects the lungs. If these proteins aren’t the right shape, they can get stuck in liver cells and fail to reach the lungs. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can raise a person’s risk of getting lung or liver disease.

Diagnosis

If you have an ongoing cough that won’t go away, your doctor will first ask you about your overall health and family history. This will include questions about medical problems that your parents, grandparents, or siblings had, if you ever smoked, what type of work you do, and where you live.

A number of tests can then be used to check the health of your lungs, how your cough is affecting them, and the best way to manage your condition. Some tests that may be performed include:

  • Arterial blood gas, which can determine how well your lungs are able to move oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide from the blood
  • Lung function tests such as spirometry, which measures the amount of air the lungs can hold
  • Pulse oximetry, which tests for the oxygen level in your blood
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan

These tests may be done not only to diagnose chronic bronchitis, but also to monitor the progress of the disease over time.

Treatment

Treatment of chronic bronchitis focuses on several goals:

  • Relieve symptoms during chronic phases
  • Preserve lung function
  • Prevent acute episodes
  • Treat acute exacerbations, or flare-ups

Medications that may be used to treat or control chronic bronchitis include:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial and viral lung infections
  • Bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around your airways and help make breathing easier
  • Oxygen therapy, which also helps make breathing easier
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy, a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems and may include an exercise program, disease management training, nutritional counseling, and psychological counseling

Some lifestyle changes may also be able to help, such as:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding secondhand smoke and places where you might breathe in other lung irritants
  • Asking your healthcare provider for an eating plan that will meet your nutritional needs and how much physical activity you can do

A lung transplant may be recommended for people who have severe symptoms that have not improved with medications.

Prognosis

You will go through periods where your condition is under control and other times when your symptoms will be worse. However, with the right interventions, you can increase your quality of life.

It’s important to work closely with your doctor to find a treatment regimen that works for you. This doesn’t only apply to medications. Your doctor can also advise you on diet, activities, and exercise, as well as other lifestyle changes that can help you manage chronic bronchitis.

COPD Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Coping

Managing your chronic bronchitis is a lifelong effort, but you can still have a good quality of life if you stick to the treatment plan you created with your doctor and make positive lifestyle changes like quitting smoking.

You may have to restrict certain activities that could expose you to irritants, and some exercises may be difficult. How well you fare with chronic bronchitis depends on the amount of lung damage you have and how well you prevent further damage.

Support is important in managing chronic bronchitis, and you may need to ask friends and family members for support, especially if they are smokers and expose you to secondhand smoke.

You can support your health and keep your chronic bronchitis from becoming worse if you:

  • Exercise
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Reduce stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Stay active
  • Do breathing exercises
  • Get vaccinated against pneumonia, the flu, and COVID-19

Summary

Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD that causes inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes. It’s usually caused by exposure to irritants that damage your lungs over a long period of time. This condition can be managed with lifestyle changes, medications, and specialized forms of therapy.

A Word From Verywell

You may be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis if you have a lingering productive cough that drags on for years. Often caused by smoking, chronic bronchitis is a lifelong condition, but one that can be managed with the right medication and treatment. Work with your doctor to find the treatment plan that is right for you, especially one that includes positive lifestyle changes.

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