Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

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Chronic bronchitis refers to inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes. It can be confused with a number of other conditions, especially those that cause a lingering cough.

Besides a productive cough, symptoms of chronic bronchitis can also include wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and more. More severe symptoms can include weight loss and weakness in your lower body.

You may not experience any symptoms or have very mild symptoms at first. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms may become more severe. Managing your symptoms is a big part of the treatment strategy for chronic bronchitis.

a sick woman coughing at home

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Frequent Symptoms

The most well-known symptom of chronic bronchitis is a cough. More specifically, a cough where you cough up mucus for at least three weeks over two years.

Besides a productive cough, people with chronic bronchitis may also have:

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

In many cases, chronic bronchitis may be diagnosed as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is an umbrella term for lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and worsen over time.

Rare Symptoms

This condition can also cause symptoms outside of the respiratory system because breathing is a critical function of the body and every tissue needs oxygen to survive. Any decrease in oxygen intake could lead to other symptoms or problems.

Examples of other symptoms sometimes, but not often, reported with chronic bronchitis and COPD include:

  • A blue color in your fingernails or lips
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Barrel chest
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Swelling in your legs and feet
  • Frequent respiratory infections

If you start to experience additional, unusual, or new symptoms, your doctor may perform additional tests such as imaging studies like a chest X-ray or CT scan, blood work, and even genetic testing.

New symptoms can be a sign that your chronic bronchitis is getting worse, that you are experiencing complications or an exacerbation, or that you have developed a new condition.

Complications

Chronic bronchitis is a chronic condition that will get worse over time if it's not managed. When chronic bronchitis makes your breathing difficult, the oxygen levels in your body will drop. Over time, this causes damage to your lungs and the rest of your body.

Progression of chronic bronchitis and other forms of COPD can lead to complications over time, including:

Advanced COPD can result in big changes to your lifestyle. Complications or progression of the condition could require you to take a number of medications or use oxygen therapy. You may also have to restrict your activity levels if you become too short of breath.

When To See a Doctor

It can be difficult to tell if your symptoms are becoming worse a little bit at a time. Your doctor may suggest that you keep a pulse oximeter at home to help monitor your oxygen levels if you have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

Part of the plan you make with your doctor should also include suggestions about when to seek care. Some examples of when to call your doctor include:

  • Changes in mucus color
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Increased coughing
  • A feeling that you can't breathe or your airway is obstructed
  • Fever
  • Increased shortness of breath or wheezing
  • An increase in your need for supplemental oxygen
  • A racing heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to talk without being short of breath
  • Inability to walk as far as usual
  • Increased swelling in your feet or hands

COPD Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Summary

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis can be easily confused with those of other conditions. If you have symptoms like a productive cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath, talk to your healthcare provider to find out what is causing them. This way, you can start managing your condition right away and prevent serious complications down the road.

A Word From Verywell

Chronic bronchitis is a lifelong condition that can affect not just your airways, but other parts of your body too. If you have a chronic cough, be sure to tell your doctor about any other symptoms you have—especially if you are coughing up blood, becoming confused, passing out, or having chest pain. A cough is a symptom that occurs in many conditions and diseases, and your doctor will need to do a thorough examination to confirm the cause.

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  1. MedlinePlus. Chronic bronchitis. Updated June 16, 2021.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chronic bronchitis.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Hypoxia. Updated March 7, 2018.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. Updated July 19, 2019.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Updated May 18, 2020.