How Chronic Bronchitis Is Treated

If you've been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, your doctor will develop a treatment plan that focuses on protecting your lungs and preventing further damage.

There are several treatment options, including medications, lifestyle changes, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation. If you are a smoker, the single best thing you can do is to quit smoking.

Severe cases of chronic bronchitis may require a lung transplant.

Female doctor talking to mature patient in examining room

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Home Remedies and Lifestyle

The first thing your doctor will talk to you about is making lifestyle changes to preserve your lung function. Most cases of chronic bronchitis are caused by cigarette smoking, so if you are still smoking, your doctor will strongly advise you to quit.

They may also recommend that you avoid secondhand smoke and places where you might breathe in other lung irritants since those are common causes of chronic bronchitis. You may need to look closely at your job or home for toxins or chemicals that may irritate your lungs.

Ask your healthcare provider for an eating plan that will meet your nutritional needs. Also ask about how much physical activity you can do. Physical activity can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe and improve your overall wellness.

Your doctor may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems. It may include an exercise program, disease management training, nutritional counseling, and psychological counseling.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Over-the-counter medications generally are not recommended to treat chronic bronchitis since there are more effective options available by prescription. If you use nonprescription medications, you may require large amounts or long-term use, which also carry risks.

However, some studies have shown that there is some benefit to OTC medications that contain guaifenesin in helping people with chronic bronchitis loosen and expel mucus.

Examples of medications that contain guaifenesin include:

  • Mucinex
  • Robitussin
  • Tussin
  • DayQuil

Be sure to talk to your doctor before adding any OTC medications to your treatment plan. Some of these medications could interact with your prescription drugs.

Prescriptions

Prescription medications are the first line of treatment for chronic bronchitis. These medications focus on stabilizing your condition and preventing or treating exacerbations, which are characterized by severe shortness of breath and chest tightness.

Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators can help relax the muscles around your airways and open them up to promote the flow of air in and out of your lungs. Most bronchodilators are delivered through an inhaler or can be nebulized so you breathe the medicine straight into your lungs.

Bronchodilators can be short-acting or long-acting. Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly so that you get relief from symptoms fast, but they wear off in a few hours. Long-acting bronchodilators provide relief for many hours, but the effect may be slower.

Short- and long-acting bronchodilators include beta2-agonists and anticholinergics:

  • Beta2-agonists relax tightened muscles around your airways. This opens the airway and makes breathing easier. Short-acting beta-agonists work within minutes but last only four to six hours. Long-acting beta-agonists can continue to work for up to 12 to 24 hours. They are used to maintain open airways throughout the day or the night.
  • Anticholinergics prevent the muscles around your airways from tightening. They keep the airways open and help clear mucus from your lungs. This combination allows your cough to expel the mucus more easily.

Oxygen Therapy

Your doctor will monitor you each visit for signs that your oxygen saturation, the amount of oxygen in your blood, is dropping below a safe level. If this happens, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy to use at home.

If you require oxygen therapy for chronic bronchitis or another condition and you have not yet quit smoking, now is the time. Oxygen therapy should not be used in areas with sparks or open flames since oxygen is highly combustible and may explode or cause a fire.

Typically, in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), of which chronic bronchitis is a type, the oxygenation goal is set at 92% or above. You may need to wear oxygen for only short periods, while you are sleeping, or continuously in severe cases.

Corticosteroids

Your doctor may add an inhaled steroid. Steroids are used to decrease inflammation, which can lead to less swelling and mucus production in the airways. They are typically reserved for treating acute flare-ups of chronic bronchitis.

Corticosteroids can also be swallowed as a pill and are usually prescribed for short periods of time in special circumstances when your symptoms are getting more severe. However, studies have shown that long-term use of oral steroids can weaken muscles and dampen the immune system.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not used as a regular treatment for chronic bronchitis, but they may be used if the mucus building in your bronchioles has led to a bacterial infection or pneumonia. Bronchioles are the small branches that extend out from the bronchi.

Azithromycin is commonly used in people with chronic bronchitis, and may have an anti-inflammatory effect as well.

You may start to feel better during the antibiotic course, but make sure you take the antibiotic for the prescribed duration. Shortcutting the antibiotic course may allow the infection to come back or become resistant to the antibiotic. 

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

While there are surgical options to help manage chronic bronchitis and other types of COPD, they are rarely used due to the cost and dangers associated with them.

Examples of surgeries that could be used in severe cases of chronic bronchitis and COPD include lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplants.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

There are no complementary or alternative medicine therapies that can effectively treat chronic bronchitis. However, some therapies that fall into this category can help relieve symptoms caused by chronic bronchitis, such as a sore throat due to frequent coughing. Herbal teas and tonics are often used for pain relief.

Other stress-reduction techniques and meditation with deep breathing may also help provide comfort and focus when you have shortness of breath. In some cases, massage or acupuncture may also be used to manage stress or pain.

While many of these treatments seem harmless, there are some red flags to watch for. Beware of any products that promise to "cure" your chronic bronchitis or help you avoid traditional medical care. Be sure to check with your doctor before beginning any alternative therapies.

Summary

The best treatment plan for chronic bronchitis is a combination of lifestyle changes and medications. Quitting smoking and staying away from lung irritants like secondhand smoke can help, as can prescription medications. You may also use some OTC drugs for symptom relief.

A Word From Verywell

Long-term treatment strategies including prescription medications, lifestyle changes, and pulmonary rehabilitation are effective for managing chronic bronchitis. Over-the-counter medications are generally not recommended, and you should talk to your doctor before starting any new therapies. Remember that quitting smoking and making healthy lifestyle choices are some of the best ways to take care of your lungs whether you have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis or not.

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7 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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