Asthmatic Bronchitis: When Asthma Leads to Bronchitis

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI on March 31, 2016Written by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN on March 31, 2016

Asthmatic bronchitis

The airways in the lungs become progressively smaller as they go deeper into the lungs. When these airways become inflamed, it's called bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis affects 8.7 million adults every year in the United States.

Although bronchitis can happen even if you don't have asthma, asthma can increase your chances of developing bronchitis. Asthmatic bronchitis is bronchitis that happens as a result of asthma.

The two conditions are linked. Having asthma puts you at an increased risk of bronchitis. This is because asthma constricts the air vessels in you lungs.

When the airways get inflamed, they produce mucus. This is your body's attempt to flush out what it thinks is an infection. This mucus can further block and damage the airways.

Anything that’s in the airways, including bacteria or viruses, will then get trapped in your airways when an asthma attack occurs. Over time, residue in the lungs can damage the lung tissue. This may further increase your risk of developing bronchitis.

What is the difference between asthma and bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an obstructive lung disorder that’s similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Although bronchitis and asthma are both related and are both lung disorders, they have different causes.

People who develop bronchitis do so because of a respiratory infection or an underlying health condition, such as an autoimmune disorder or cystic fibrosis.

Asthma and bronchitis are also different on a cellular level. Asthma is linked to cells that are related to inflammation, whereas bronchitis is linked to cells involved in fighting infection.

Symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis

The symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, and asthmatic bronchitis are generally very similar. Because of this, it can be difficult to tell the conditions apart without an official diagnosis.

These symptoms may include:

  • chest tightness
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • a low-grade fever

You may not be able to tell if you have bronchitis or an asthma flare-up without specialized lung function tests from your doctor. You should seek medical treatment if:

  • your condition worsens
  • your condition doesn’t improve with the use of your asthma inhaler
  • you develop a fever of about 102°F or higher

Your doctor will do more specific testing to determine if your symptoms are being caused by asthma or bronchitis. If you’re coughing up any sputum, you may have bronchitis.

What causes asthmatic bronchitis?

The exact cause of asthmatic bronchitis isn’t known. Bronchitis can develop because of a virus or infection in the breathing tubes or because of lifestyle factors

If you have asthma and also smoke, you’re more at risk for the condition. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also damage your airways. This makes you more prone to getting bronchitis.

Breathing in polluted air, which can happen while doing woodwork or working with dangerous chemicals, can increase your risk of bronchitis. With asthma, those triggers are even more likely to lead to bronchitis.

How is asthmatic bronchitis treated?

If your bronchitis is caused by an infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Treatment goals for asthmatic bronchitis include reducing airway inflammation, keeping the airways open, and getting rid of any mucus that’s clogging up your airways. You may breathe in steroids to help reduce the inflammation in your lungs or use supplemental oxygen at home.

How to prevent asthmatic bronchitis

It’s best to control your asthma as much as possible to prevent asthmatic bronchitis from developing. You can also take steps to reduce your exposure to airway irritants. This may mean:

  • wearing a mask or filter if your job involves airway pollution
  • buying an air or furnace filter for your home
  • removing pets from the home or limiting interaction with them

You may also consider getting an annual flu vaccine. Respiratory infections can often lead to bronchitis, and a vaccination may help prevent you from getting the flu in the first place.

If your asthma is controlled and you don't have signs of an infection, your bronchitis may clear up all on its own. If your symptoms aren't improving or get worse, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

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