Is Chronic Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial
tubes. These are the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs. People who
have bronchitis often have a persistent cough that brings up thickened,
discolored mucus. They may also experience wheezing, chest pain, and shortness
Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis
develops from a cold or other respiratory infection, and often improves within
a few days without lasting effects. Chronic bronchitis is a more serious
condition that develops over time rather than striking suddenly. It’s
characterized by recurrent episodes of bronchitis that last for several months
or years. The constant inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes causes
excessive amounts of sticky mucus to build up in the airways. This restricts
the amount of airflow going into and out of the lungs. The blockage in airflow
gets worse over time, resulting in breathing difficulties and increased mucus
production in the lungs.
Many people who have chronic bronchitis eventually develop emphysema, which is a
type of lung disease. Together, the two conditions are referred to as chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. According to the American
Lung Association, more than 11 million people in the United States have
COPD. However, there are many more people who don’t even know they have it.
The majority of COPD
symptoms take a while to develop, so people often mistakenly believe that
the condition isn’t life-threatening and ignore the symptoms until the
condition has progressed to a more advanced stage. Although the
condition can’t be cured, the symptoms can be managed with treatment once a
diagnosis is made.
What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis?
After a long period of
inflammation and irritation in the bronchial tubes, chronic bronchitis can
result in several hallmark symptoms, including a persistent, heavy cough that
brings up mucus from the lungs. The mucus may be yellow, green, or white.
As time passes, the
amount of mucus gradually increases due to the increased production of mucus in
the lungs. The mucus eventually builds up in the bronchial tubes and restricts
airflow, causing breathing to become increasingly difficult. This shortness of
breath may be accompanied by wheezing that gets worse during any type of
Other symptoms of
chronic bronchitis may include:
- a fever
In the later stages of chronic bronchitis, the skin and lips may
develop a bluish color due to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Decreased
levels of oxygen in the blood can also lead to peripheral edema, or swelling in
the legs and ankles.
As chronic bronchitis
progresses, the symptoms can also vary in severity and frequency. For example,
a cough may disappear temporarily, only to be followed by a period of more
intense coughing. More severe episodes may be triggered by various factors,
tract infections, such as the cold or flu
elsewhere in the body
to environmental irritants, such as air pollution or dust
What Causes Chronic Bronchitis?
Chronic bronchitis occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes
repeatedly becomes irritated and inflamed. The continuous irritation and
swelling can damage the airways and cause a buildup of sticky mucus, making it
difficult for air to move through the lungs. This leads to breathing
difficulties that gradually get worse. The inflammation can also damage the cilia,
which are the hair-like structures that help to keep the air passages free of germs
and other irritants. When the cilia don’t work properly, the airways often become
a breeding ground for bacterial and viral infections.
Infections typically trigger the initial irritation and swelling that
lead to acute bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis, however, is most commonly caused
by cigarette smoking. In fact, over 90 percent
of those with the disease have a history of smoking. Inhaling cigarette smoke temporarily
paralyzes the cilia, so frequent smoking over an extended period can severely damage
the cilia. Chronic bronchitis may develop over time due to this damage.
Secondhand smoke can also contribute to the development of chronic
bronchitis. Other possible causes include extended exposure to air pollution,
industrial or chemical fumes, and toxic gases. Repeated lung infections may
also cause further damage to the lungs and make chronic bronchitis symptoms
When Should I See My Doctor?
Many people dismiss symptoms of chronic bronchitis, believing
they simply have smoker’s cough. However, it’s important to contact your doctor
right away if you have even the slightest suspicion that you might have
bronchitis. Failing to receive timely treatment for chronic bronchitis greatly increases
your risk of severe lung damage, which can lead to respiratory problems or
Call your doctor right away if your cough:
- lasts longer than three weeks
- prevents you from sleeping
- is accompanied by a fever above 100.4°F
- produces discolored mucus or blood
- causes wheezing or shortness of breath
How Is Chronic Bronchitis Diagnosed?
If you’re uncertain about whether or not your symptoms are those
of chronic bronchitis, tests are available to help your doctor make a
- A chest X-ray can help rule out other lung
conditions, such as pneumonia, that may be causing your cough.
- Sputum is the mucus that you cough up from your
lungs. Testing and analyzing the sputum can confirm the presence of bacteria
and help your doctor determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.
- A pulmonary
function test allows your doctor to evaluate how well your lungs are
functioning. It can check for signs of asthma or emphysema by measuring how
well you’re able to breathe and how easily your lungs are able to send oxygen
to the rest of your body.
- During a CT scan, your doctor takes
high-resolution X-rays of your body from various angles, allowing your doctor
to see your lungs and other organs in more detail.
How Is Chronic Bronchitis Treated?
Although there’s no cure for chronic bronchitis, the disease can
be managed with medical treatment and lifestyle adjustments, especially when a
diagnosis is made early on.
Depending on the severity of your condition, your treatment plan
may consist of the following:
- A bronchodilator is a type of medicine that
opens the airways in your lungs, making it easier to breathe. The substance is
usually breathed in through an inhaler, which is a device that pumps the
medicine into your lungs. Your doctor will show you how to use your inhaler
properly so you get the most from bronchodilator.
is an oral medication that relaxes the muscles in your airways so they open up
more, which helps relieve any breathing difficulties. Your doctor may prescribe
theophylline if you have severe shortness of breath.
- If your symptoms don’t improve with
bronchodilator or theophylline, your doctor might prescribe steroids. These
medications can be taken either with an inhaler or in pill form.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that is
meant to improve your breathing and overall well-being. It often consists of
exercise, nutritional counseling, and breathing strategies. Some programs also
include counseling. Your doctor may refer you to a pulmonary rehabilitation
program at a hospital in your area.
Making certain lifestyle changes and trying natural remedies can
also help alleviate the symptoms of chronic bronchitis. You may want to
consider the following:
in warm, moist air from a humidifier can ease coughs and loosen the mucus in
your airways. Make sure you clean the humidifier regularly according to the
manufacturer’s instructions. Bacteria and fungi can grow in the water container
if it isn’t cleaned properly.
should quit smoking immediately if you’re smoker. If you
live in an area with high levels of air pollution, you should wear a mask
whenever you go outside. You should also wear a mask if you work in an industry
where you’re exposed to paint or household cleaners with strong fumes. Frequent
exposure to these irritants can make your symptoms much worse.
- Physical activity can strengthen the muscles
that help you breathe. Ideally, you should exercise at least three times per week
for 30 minutes. If you didn’t work out before, start out slowly and gradually
increase the length and intensity of your exercise routine. You can ask your
doctor to help you create an exercise plan that works for you.
breathing can sometimes provide relief when you’re having difficulty
breathing. In pursed-lip breathing, you take a deep breath and then slowly breathe
out through your mouth. As you breathe out, hold your lips as if you're about
to kiss someone. Doing this can help regulate your breathing and make you feel
better when you’re experiencing shortness of breath.
How Can Chronic Bronchitis Be Prevented?
The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk for
chronic bronchitis is to avoid or stop smoking. Severe lung damage can occur when
you inhale cigarette smoke over an extended period. Once you quit smoking, your
lungs will begin to heal and you'll be able to breathe much easier. You’ll also
lower your risk of getting lung cancer. Talk to your doctor about quitting
smoking or visit the American Lung Association website for tips.
It’s also important to avoid other lung irritants, including
paint, toxic fumes, and dust. If you work in an industry where you’re
frequently exposed to such irritants, wear a mask over your nose and throat to
protect your lungs.