What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation in the airways leading to and within the lungs (bronchial tubes). The inflammation may narrow these tubes, which makes it hard to breathe.

Chronic bronchitis causes a persistent cough that brings up mucus (sputum). Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What can you expect when you have chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis gets worse over time. You cannot undo the damage to your lungs.

Over time, you may find that:

  • You get short of breath even when you do things like get dressed or fix a meal.
  • It is hard to eat or exercise.
  • You feel weaker and limit activity.

Over many years, the swelling and mucus from chronic bronchitis make it more likely that you will get lung infections.

But there are things you can do to prevent more damage and feel better.

What are the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

The main symptoms of chronic bronchitis are:

  • A cough that will not go away.
  • Mucus that comes up when you cough.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.

At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called an exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.

How is chronic bronchitis treated?

Chronic bronchitis is treated with medicines and oxygen. You also can take steps to stay healthy and keep your condition from getting worse.

Medicines and oxygen therapy

  • You may be taking medicines such as:
    • Bronchodilators. These help open your airways and make breathing easier. Bronchodilators are either short-acting (work for 4 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 12 to 24 hours). You inhale most bronchodilators, so they start to act quickly. Always carry your quick-relief inhaler with you in case you need it.
    • Corticosteroids. These reduce airway inflammation. They come in inhaled or pill form.
    • Antibiotics. These medicines are used when you have a bacterial lung infection.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. Use the flow rate your doctor has recommended, and do not change it without talking to your doctor first.

Other care

  • If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Learn breathing methods—such as breathing through pursed lips—to help you become less short of breath.
  • If your doctor has not set you up with a pulmonary rehabilitation program, ask your doctor if rehab is right for you. Rehab includes exercise programs, education about your disease and how to manage it, help with diet and other changes, and emotional support.
  • Eat regular, healthy meals. Use bronchodilators about 1 hour before you eat to make it easier to eat. Try eating smaller, frequent meals so your stomach is never too full. A full stomach can push on the muscle that helps you breathe (your diaphragm) and make it harder to breathe. Drink beverages at the end of the meal. Avoid foods that are hard to chew.

How can you care for yourself when you have chronic bronchitis?

If you smoke, quit or cut back as much as you can. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting. Learn to use your inhalers correctly. This can mean fewer symptoms, fewer side effects, and better treatment. Try to avoid things that make your symptoms worse. And stay up to date on vaccines.

Chronic bronchitis

Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in left lung, with detail of healthy airway and airway inflamed by bronchitis

Bronchial tubes are airways that deliver air into the lungs. With chronic bronchitis, breathing in tobacco smoke and other irritants over time can make the airways inflamed. The airways make more mucus than normal. This reduces air flow and makes you cough. Over many years, damage to the lungs can grow worse and become a lifelong condition.

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is long-term swelling and the buildup of mucus in the airways of your lungs. The airways (bronchial tubes) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for you to breathe. It can also make you cough. It is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by smoking. But chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution also can cause it over time.

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