Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. Chronic bronchitis is usually related to smoking or exposure to pollution. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Read on to learn more about chronic bronchitis, its symptoms, treatment, and causes.

The bronchial tubes carry air to and from your lungs. People with bronchitis often have a persistent cough that brings up thick, discolored mucus. They may also experience wheezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic:

  • Acute bronchitis. Acute bronchitis develops from a cold or other respiratory infection. Symptoms last less than 3 weeks, often improving within a few days without lasting effects.
  • Chronic bronchitis. Bronchitis is classified as chronic when symptoms — primarily productive cough — lasts more than 3 months within a span of 2 years. The constant inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes causes excessive amounts of sticky mucus to build up in the airways, restricting the amount of airflow into and out of the lungs.

Many people who have chronic bronchitis eventually develop emphysema, which is also a type of COPD.

According to the American Lung Association, more than 16.4 million people in the United States live with COPD. However, there are many more people who don’t know they’ve developed it.

The majority of COPD symptoms take a while to develop, so people may 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.

After a long period of inflammation and irritation in the bronchial tubes, chronic bronchitis can result in several hallmark symptoms.

Common symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • persistent cough (often referred to as “smoker’s cough”)
  • coughing up mucus that may be yellow, green, or white
  • wheezing
  • chest discomfort

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, resulting in difficulty breathing, especially during physical activity.

Other symptoms of chronic bronchitis can include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • frequent and severe respiratory infections
  • wheezing and crackling sounds when breathing
  • bluish fingernails, lips, and skin due to low oxygen levels
  • swelling in the legs and ankles (peripheral edema)

As chronic bronchitis progresses, symptoms can 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, including:

  • respiratory tract infections, such as the cold or flu
  • infections elsewhere in the body
  • exposure to environmental irritants, such as air pollution or dust
  • heart conditions

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.

Medical treatments

Depending on the severity of your condition, your treatment plan may consist of the following:

  • Bronchodilator. A bronchodilator is a type of medication that opens the airways in the lungs, making it easier to breathe. The substance is usually breathed in through an inhaler, which is a device that pumps the medicine into the lungs. A doctor or other healthcare professional (HCP) will show you how to use your inhaler properly so you get the most from bronchodilator.
  • Theophylline. Theophylline is an oral medication that relaxes the muscles in the airways so they open up more. This helps relieve any breathing difficulties. A doctor or other HCP may prescribe theophylline if you have severe shortness of breath.
  • Steroids. If your symptoms don’t improve with bronchodilator or theophylline, a doctor or other HCP might prescribe steroids. These medications can be taken either with an inhaler or in pill form.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program that’s meant to improve your breathing and overall well-being. It often consists of exercise, nutritional counseling, and breathing strategies. Some programs also include counseling. You may also be referred to a pulmonary rehabilitation program at a hospital in your area.

Lifestyle remedies

Making certain lifestyle changes and trying natural remedies can also help alleviate the symptoms of chronic bronchitis.

You may want to consider the following:

  • Breathing in warm, moist air from a humidifier can help 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.
  • Taking steps to limit the amount of irritants you inhale may also help reduce inflammation and coughing. For example, if you smoke cigarettes, cutting back may be beneficial. If you live in an area with high levels of air pollution, consider wearing a medical 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.
  • Physical activity can help strengthen the muscles that help you breathe. Consider getting at least 5 minutes of movement a day, gradually increasing the length and intensity of your routine. If you aren’t sure where to begin, you may find it helpful to consult with a doctor or other HCP. They help you create an exercise plan that works for you.
  • Pursed-lip 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. Doing this can help regulate your breathing.

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.

Causes of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Infections. Infections typically trigger the initial irritation and swelling that lead to acute bronchitis.
  • Smoking tobacco. Smoking is the leading risk factor for developing chronic bronchitis. Over 90 percent of those with the disease have a history of smoking.
  • Secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of developing chronic bronchitis.
  • Air pollution. Exposure to air pollution, chemical or industrial fumes, dust, and toxic gases can increase the risk for chronic bronchitis.

To diagnose chronic bronchitis, a doctor or other HCP will begin with a review of your medical history, including symptoms and other conditions you may have, and a physical exam.

They may also order the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can help rule out other lung conditions, such as pneumonia, that may be causing your cough.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests may be used to check for signs of infection.
  • Spirometry. This is a pulmonary function test that involves blowing into a device called a spirometer in order to measure the airflow in and out of your lungs.
  • Arterial blood gas. Also called a blood gas test, this test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. The result lets your HCP know how well your lungs are able to move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide out.
  • Pulse oximetry. This test measures the oxygen saturation level of your blood. It’s a simple test that involves clipping a small device to a body part, usually a finger.
  • CT scan. A CT scan takes a series of X-rays that can be combined to create a 3D image of a part of the body. This type of scan may be ordered if the physician requires a more detailed view of your lungs than an X-ray provides.

There’s no cure for chronic bronchitis, but there are several treatments and therapies available to help you manage your symptoms. Certain lifestyle changes may also help make you more comfortable.

The outlook for chronic bronchitis can vary significantly from person to person depending on variables such as:

  • severity of the disease
  • how well a person responds to treatment
  • a person’s overall health
  • whether a person has smoked or currently smokes tobacco

Following your HCP’s treatment advice can help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life.

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 heart failure.

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 (38°C)
  • produces discolored mucus or blood
  • causes wheezing or shortness of breath

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 smoke over an extended period.

If 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 developing lung cancer.

Talk with a doctor or other HCP 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 help protect your lungs.