Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed when you have an ongoing, productive cough. While it isn’t deadly, the severity of your chronic bronchitis can depend on your treatment and emergency care.

Chronic bronchitis falls under the umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a complex, chronic disease that can cause respiratory difficulties and makes all sorts of other conditions worse.

Though it isn’t necessarily deadly, chronic bronchitis can get progressively worse and lead to other indirect health conditions over time if not treated properly.

This article will explore some of the symptoms and complications that can arise from chronic bronchitis and why they’re dangerous.

Chronic bronchitis is when you have a dry cough that produces mucus for more than 3 months. There are other diagnostic factors, too, but this is usually the first symptom.

When you have bronchitis, the tubes in your lower airway become inflamed. These tubes, called bronchi, normally produce mucus, but when inflammation and swelling sets in, mucus production increases and has a difficult time moving through your airway.

This overproduction of mucus — along with the now limited space for air to move through — triggers a cough and other complications.

Chronic bronchitis isn’t so much a deadly illness as it’s a progressive and complex medical condition.

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, but chronic bronchitis develops from long-term exposures to pollution and toxins.

It’s usually diagnosed after a bronchitis-type cough develops and lasts for 3 months or more.

Cigarette smoking is a big risk factor for developing chronic bronchitis, but 40% of people with COPDs like bronchitis have never smoked. About one-quarter of COPD in people who’ve never smoked is attributed to toxin exposure in their workplace.

Many respiratory conditions fall under the umbrella of COPD, but chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the most common. Overall, about 43 out of every 100,000 Americans die of COPD each year.

Emphysema and lower respiratory tract diseases like asthma lead to the most deaths, but the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that chronic bronchitis alone causes more than 330 deaths per year on average.

Airway inflammation and obstruction are the primary ways chronic bronchitis can be deadly. But this is indirect. The reduction in oxygenation and your lung function caused by chronic bronchitis contributes to cardiovascular diseases and cancers that ultimately cause death.

But the presence of chronic bronchitis increases hospitalization and complications of many other health disorders, playing a big role in the overall mortality rate of people with this disease.

A dry-sounding cough that produces a thick, sticky mucus is the main symptom of chronic bronchitis.

Over time, this can lead to episodes of exacerbation when your respiratory function is worse.

During these flare-ups, or exacerbations, other symptoms can arise, such as shortness of breath, confusion, and chest pain as your body struggles to get enough oxygen.

People with chronic bronchitis are at an increased risk of hospitalization overall, and respiratory complications are the main way this happens. When the flow of air through your lungs is blocked or even reduced, you can’t supply your body’s tissues with enough oxygen. This leads to an imbalance in your body that can cause all sorts of complications.

The mucus that’s overproduced in your bronchial tubes can also become infected over time, leading to bouts of pneumonia.

In general, people with COPD are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia and other respiratory infections.

Chronic bronchitis goes through periods where your symptoms can be worse and then better. A worsening or flare-up of your symptoms is known as an exacerbation.

Between 30–50% of people with COPD experience at least one exacerbation a year. An exacerbation can come on in a matter of days. Common signs of an looming or new exacerbation can include symptoms like:

  • a change in the color or thickness of your mucus
  • an increase in the severity or frequency of your coughing
  • increased breathlessness or difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • sleeping difficulties
  • a decrease in your blood oxygen level

Untreated chronic bronchitis and other forms of COPD can put a strain on your heart and overall cardiovascular system. This can lead to other ongoing conditions like heart failure.

Taking steps to stop the progression of your COPD is key to managing your condition. This might include quitting smoking or avoiding areas with high air pollution.

Beyond that, your treatment will depend a lot on the severity of your illness and what symptoms you’re experiencing. Respiratory therapies, pulmonary rehabilitation, medications to help manage mucus and open airways, and oxygen supplements are all common treatments for people with chronic bronchitis.

If you have chronic bronchitis or any other form of COPD, it’s important to follow the regular treatment plan you create with a doctor.

But it’s also important to outline what symptoms or situations can signal an exacerbation, and when — and how — you’ll get help if you need it. This is called a COPD action plan. Having a good action plan can help you reduce your risk of exacerbations of and even death from COPD.

Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD. COPD increases your risk of hospitalization and even death for a number of reasons, including direct drops in your oxygen and airflow, as well as indirect things like contributions to heart conditions and other cardiovascular diseases.

Creating a good regular treatment plan and an effective emergency action plan to help you manage your condition and to prevent and treat exacerbations can help you avoid the risk of hospitalization and death related to chronic bronchitis.