Chronic Bronchitis

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term swelling and irritation in the air passages in your lungs. The irritation may damage your lungs. This lung damage often gets worse over time, and it is usually permanent. Chronic bronchitis is part of a group of lung diseases called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What causes or increases my risk of chronic bronchitis?

  • Cigarette smoke: Smoking causes most cases of chronic bronchitis. The more you smoke, the more damage you do to your lungs. People who do not smoke but who live or work around others who smoke are at higher risk.

  • Exposure to lung irritants: Some dusts and chemical fumes in your workplace can damage your lungs over time. Your risk also increases if you live in an area with heavy air pollution.

  • Frequent lung infections: Frequent lung infections may damage your lungs over time and lead to chronic bronchitis.

  • Family history: You may be more likely to get a lung disease if someone else in your family had one.

  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency: Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein found in blood that helps protect your lungs from damage. A lack of AAT can increase your risk of lung problems. AAT deficiency is a rare genetic (inherited) problem that can be treated.

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

  • Early signs and symptoms: At first, you may have few symptoms. You may have a morning cough that brings up mucus from the lungs. As time passes, the amount of mucus coughed up begins to increase. The cough also starts to last longer during the day. You may have shortness of breath. You may have a runny nose, or you may have headaches and a stuffy nose. You may have a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath.

  • Later signs and symptoms: As chronic bronchitis gets worse, you may notice more symptoms. Your skin, nail beds, or lips may turn dusky or blue. You may become more short of breath and get tired more easily. You may not be able to walk as far as you used to. At times, you may wheeze. You may notice your breathing is faster than it used to be.

What is an exacerbation of chronic bronchitis?

An exacerbation is when your symptoms get much worse very quickly. Exacerbations of chronic bronchitis can be triggered by infections such as colds or the flu. Lung irritants such as air pollution, dusts, fumes, or smoke can also trigger an exacerbation. Exacerbations of chronic bronchitis can be serious, even life-threatening.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Caregivers will ask about your signs and symptoms. Tell caregivers about other medical conditions you have. Your caregiver will examine you and listen to your heart and lungs.

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Caregivers use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia. Chest x-rays may also show fluid around the heart and lungs.

  • Pulmonary function tests: Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) help caregivers learn how well your body uses oxygen. You breathe into a mouthpiece connected to a machine. The machine measures how much air you breathe in and out over a certain amount of time. PFTs help your caregivers decide the best treatment for you.

  • Spirometry: A spirometer measures how well you can breathe. You will take a deep breath and then push the air out as fast as you can. This test measures how much air you are able to push out.

How is chronic bronchitis treated?

  • Medicines:

    • Antibiotics: Antibiotics may be given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

    • Inhalers: Your caregiver may give you one or more inhalers to help you breathe easier and cough less. An inhaler gives your medicine in a mist form so that you can breathe it into your lungs. Ask your caregiver to show you how to use your inhaler correctly.



    • Steroid medicine: Steroid medicine helps open your air passages so you can breathe easier.

  • Oxygen: You may need extra oxygen to help you breathe easier. It may be given through a plastic mask over your mouth and nose. It may be given through a nasal cannula instead of a mask. A nasal cannula is a pair of short, thin tubes that rest just inside your nose.

How can I care for myself when I have chronic bronchitis?

  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you: If you smoke, it is never too late to quit.

  • Use breathing techniques you have been taught: Your caregiver may recommend that you do special breathing exercises such as cough and deep breathing or pursed lip breathing.
    Breathe in Breathe out


  • Follow up with your caregiver as directed: Write down your questions so you will remember to ask them during your follow-up visits.

  • Avoid alcohol: Alcohol dulls your urge to cough and sneeze. When you have bronchitis, you need to be able to cough and sneeze to clear your air passages. Alcohol also causes your body to lose fluid. This can make the mucus in your lungs thicker and harder to cough up.

  • Drink more liquids: Most people should drink at least 8 eight-ounce cups of water a day. You may need to drink more liquids when you have chronic bronchitis. Liquids help keep your air passages moist and help you cough up mucus.

  • Get more rest: You may feel like resting more. Slowly start to do more each day. Rest when you feel it is needed. Sleep with your upper body propped up with pillows. This will help you breathe more easily.

  • Eat healthy foods: Eat fruits, vegetables, breads, and protein (such as chicken, fish, and beans). Dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and ice cream) can sometimes increase the amount of mucus your body makes. Ask your caregiver if you should eat fewer dairy products.

What are the risks of chronic bronchitis?

  • Over time, chronic bronchitis may cause pain, trouble sleeping, or anxiety. You may need to use oxygen to help you breathe. You may lose weight without trying. Your risk of lung cancer may increase. Lung infections in people with chronic bronchitis may be life-threatening.

  • Advanced chronic bronchitis may lead to heart problems. This happens when your heart has to work harder because of damage to your lungs. You may get swelling in your ankles, legs, or abdomen. You may have blood pressure problems or chest pain.

When should I call my caregiver?

Call your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You use your inhalers more often than usual.

  • You have new or increased swelling in your legs, ankles, or abdomen.

  • You run out of breath easily when you talk or do your usual exercise or activities.

  • You have any questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have new chest pain or tightness.

  • You become tired easily from trying to get enough breath.

  • You become confused, dizzy, or feel like you may faint.

  • The amount or color of your sputum changes, or your sputum becomes too hard to cough up.

  • You have a new or increased gray or blue tint of your nail beds. You may also see color changes in your fingers or lips.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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