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Chronic Bronchitis

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

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. The 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).

The Lungs

What causes or increases my risk for chronic bronchitis?

A family history of lung disease can increase your risk for chronic bronchitis. The following may cause lung damage that can increase your risk:

  • Smoking causes most cases of chronic bronchitis. The more you smoke, the more damage you do to your lungs. You may also be at risk if you live or work around others who smoke, even if you do not smoke.
  • Exposure to lung irritants such as dust 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 may damage your lungs over time.
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency means you lack a protein in your blood called alpha-1 antitrypsin. This protein helps protect your lungs from damage. A lack of AAT can increase your risk for 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 may include shortness of breath, a runny or stuffy nose, or a headache. 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 a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath.
  • Later signs and symptoms may include your skin, nail beds, or lips turning 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. 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 a cold or the flu. Lung irritants such as air pollution, dust, fumes, or smoke can also trigger an exacerbation. Exacerbations of chronic bronchitis can be life-threatening.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your signs and symptoms. Tell your provider about other medical conditions you have. Your provider will examine you and listen to your heart and lungs. You may also need any of the following:

  • Blood tests may be used to show infection, test kidney function, or give information about your overall health.
  • X-ray pictures of your lungs and heart may show signs of infection, such as pneumonia, or a collapsed lung. X-rays may also show tumors, broken ribs, or fluid around your heart and lungs.
  • Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) help healthcare providers 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 healthcare providers decide the best treatment for you.
  • Spirometry is a type of lung function test that 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?

  • Bronchodilators help you breathe easier and cough less. You may be given your medicine in a mist form so that you can breathe it into your lungs. Your medicine may be delivered through an inhaler or through a mask attached to oxygen. Ask your healthcare provider to show you how to use your inhaler correctly.
    Metered Dose Inhaler
  • Steroids help decrease inflammation in your airway so that you can breathe easier.
  • Extra oxygen may be needed if your blood oxygen level is lower than it should be.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to manage chronic bronchitis?

  • Check your oxygen level, if directed. Your healthcare provider may recommend you use a pulse oximeter (pulse ox). A pulse ox is a device that measures the percentage of oxygen in your blood. You may be given a percentage target for when you are at rest and another target for activity. Your provider may want you to keep a record of your oxygen levels. Bring the record to follow-up visits as directed.
    Pulse Oximeter
  • Sleep with your upper body raised. This will help you breathe easier. You can use foam wedges or elevate the head of your bed. Many devices are available to help raise your upper body while in bed. Use a device that will tilt your whole body, or bend your body at the waist. The device should not bend your body at the upper back or neck.
    Elevate Head (Adult)
  • Prevent the spread of germs:
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing gel with you. You can use the gel to clean your hands when soap and water are not available.
    • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.
    • Always cover your mouth when you cough. Cough into a tissue or your shirtsleeve so you do not spread germs from your hands.
    • Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.
    • Ask about vaccines. Get a flu vaccine every year as soon as recommended, usually in September or October. Get recommended COVID-19 vaccine doses and boosters. Ask about other vaccines you may need, and when to get them.

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other substances can cause lung damage. Do not use e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco without first talking to your healthcare provider. They still contain nicotine. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit.
  • Avoid lung irritants. Stay out of high altitudes and places with high humidity. Stay inside, or cover your mouth and nose with a scarf when you are outside during cold weather. Stay inside on days when air pollution or pollen counts are high. Do not use aerosol sprays such as deodorant, bug spray, and hair spray.
  • Drink more liquids. This will help to keep your air passages moist and help you cough up mucus. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have new chest pain or tightness.
  • You become confused, dizzy, or feel like you may faint.
  • You have a new or increased gray or blue tint to your nail beds, fingers, or lips.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You become tired easily from trying to get enough breath.
  • The amount or color of your sputum changes, or your sputum becomes too hard to cough up.

When should I call my doctor?

  • 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 questions or concerns about your condition or care.

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 healthcare providers 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.

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Further information

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