Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Doctors consider COPD an umbrella term that also includes the medical condition emphysema.
COPD is a serious medical condition that can affect your quality of life and overall health. Knowing your risk factors and treating chronic bronchitis as early as possible can help keep your lungs working well.
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways in your lungs. These air passages are known as bronchi. Sometimes, bronchitis is acute or short term. Other times, bronchitis is long lasting.
Doctors call this long-term type chronic bronchitis, and it’s a form of COPD.
Chronic bronchitis can get worse or better, but it never fully goes away. Symptoms can often worsen over time, making it hard for you to breathe.
Doctors do not know exactly how many people have chronic bronchitis. Estimates range from
With lung disease, there is restrictive lung disease and obstructive lung disease. Chronic bronchitis and asthma are obstructive lung diseases.
Obstructive lung disease prevents you from exhaling all the air from your lungs, while restrictive lung disease decreases the volume of air you can inhale.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you may build up a lot of phlegm or mucus in your lungs. This keeps your lungs from working well. You may also start to cough a lot because your lungs are trying to get the mucus out.
Chronic bronchitis symptoms include:
- coughing up mucus
- frequent coughing
- problems breathing deeply
- shortness of breath
Coughing and coughing up mucus are the two major chronic bronchitis symptoms.
The most common risk factor for chronic bronchitis is smoking cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association. Cigarette smoking inflames and damages lung tissue, which can lead to chronic bronchitis.
But smoking is not the only risk factor. Other risk factors include:
- having a history of frequent childhood respiratory infections or pneumonia
- living in a city with poor air quality
- living in a place where you use cooking and heating fuels, such as charcoal or kerosene
- working at a factory or other facility that utilizes chemicals
- working or living in a place where you inhale significant amounts of dust
Each of these factors can increase your risk for scarring and inflammation that can lead to the overproduction of mucus.
There are also risk factors for chronic bronchitis you cannot change. If you have a family history of bronchitis, you’re also at greater risk for chronic bronchitis. Aging is also a risk factor. Talk with your doctor about ways you can reduce your risk.
Chronic bronchitis may be caused by many things. In most cases, inhaling pollutants can cause chronic bronchitis. Pollution forms include:
- chemicals from tobacco smoke
- industrial chemicals, such as cleaners
Inhaling these pollutants causes inflammation and irritation in your lungs. Your body responds by releasing white blood cells, which secrete enzymes that may destroy healthy lung tissue.
Other causes for chronic bronchitis and COPD may include genetic factors. Sometimes, people who’ve never smoked or never had any workplace pollution exposure get chronic bronchitis. They may have some factor in their genetic makeup that causes them to experience lung damage.
Your doctor will diagnose chronic bronchitis by asking about your cough. Those with chronic bronchitis have a productive cough (meaning you cough up phlegm) for at least 3 months over the course of 2 years.
In addition to discussing your symptoms, your doctor will likely order several tests. These include:
Your doctor will use these tests to rule out other medical conditions and to see how well your lungs exhale air. Looking at these tests, your doctor can determine if you have chronic bronchitis.
There’s no cure for chronic bronchitis. But there are lots of treatments that can help you live better with chronic bronchitis. They’re a combination of lifestyle changes and medication treatments.
Some lifestyle factors can help you live better with chronic bronchitis. Examples include:
- quitting smoking if you smoke
- avoiding exposure to air pollution, chemicals, and occupational dusts
- avoiding secondhand smoke
- getting needed vaccinations, such as the flu and pneumonia vaccines, to protect your lungs
- eating healthy foods that allow you to get the nutrition you need without feeling out of breath
Your lung doctor may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation. This is a therapy program where you learn how to protect your lungs when you exercise, practice breathing techniques, and engage in everyday activities to breathe better.
Doctors will often prescribe medications to help your lungs work as well as they can. Examples of medications doctors prescribe include:
- Bronchodilators. These medications help to relax and open up your airways. This will make breathing easier. An example is albuterol.
- Steroids. Some inhalers include steroids, which are medications to reduce inflammation in your lungs. You can also take oral steroids. Additionally, there are combination medications that have bronchodilators and steroids, such as:
- fluticasone plus salmeterol (Advair)
- budesonide plus formoterol (Symbicort)
- fluticasone plus vilanterol (Breo)
- Antibiotics. If you have a respiratory infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors work in a different way than bronchodilators to relax your airways and open up your lungs. An example is roflumilast (Daliresp).
The medications you take may depend on the severity of your chronic bronchitis.
Sometimes, you might experience a worsening of your lung function, which is known as an exacerbation. When this occurs, your doctor may prescribe medications for temporary use until your lung function improves.
In some instances, you may need extra oxygen via an oxygen tank if your lungs are having a hard time exchanging oxygen. If your chronic bronchitis is severe, your doctor may recommend surgical options, such as:
- lung transplants
- removal of damaged lung tissue
- removal of damaged air spaces called bullae
Having chronic bronchitis can potentially cause several effects on your life. These include:
- causing more lung-related exacerbations
- reducing your quality of life
- increasing mortality
Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema are forms of COPD. Chronic bronchitis can affect your quality of life if you do not manage it through medications and lifestyle changes. Limiting exacerbations is important for keeping this condition from getting worse.