Chronic Bronchitis

What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the air passages to and from your lungs, called bronchial tubes. There are two types of bronchitis: chronic and acute. Acute bronchitis is less medically serious; it usually occurs after a cold or respiratory ailment but clears up on its own after a few days. Chronic bronchitis can last for months or years and poses a greater risk to your health. The constant irritation of the bronchial tubes creates permanent mucous buildup that can lead to airflow obstructions and breathing problems. 

Chronic bronchitis has been linked to emphysema, a major lung disease. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are sometimes lumped together as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. COPD can be life-threatening, if not properly identified and managed. The American Lung Association estimates that 11 million Americans have COPD; many more have the undiagnosed symptoms. 

What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is marked by serial coughing or hacking, which sometimes dislodges discolored mucous or phlegm. Other symptoms are:

  • Fatigue and shortness of breath
  • Fever and chills
  • Sinus congestion
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Bad breath

New symptoms can appear as the disease progresses, including the bluing of skin and lips and the development of peripheral edema, or a swelling of legs and ankles. 

What Causes Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is caused by regular irritation of the bronchial tubes. Also affected are the cilia, which are small, hair-like structures that line your breathing passages and help keep them free of germs and other minute debris. Though respiratory infections can play a role, the most frequent source of irritation is smoking. The great majority of patients with chronic bronchitis are or have been smokers.

There are several other risk factors for developing chronic bronchitis. These include breathing in secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, and other toxic gases. Preventing bronchitis is largely a matter of avoiding the inhalation of airborne irritants.

How Is Chronic Bronchitis Diagnosed?

There are a variety of tests that your physician can perform to diagnose chronic bronchitis:

  • Blood test: A blood test can identify an increase in red-cell counts that occurs to offset the body’s reduced oxygen levels.
  • X-ray: The lungs of bronchitis sufferers appear oversized in chest X-rays. 
  • Electroencephalogram or EKG: EKGs can document evidence of bronchitis- or COPD-triggered heart problems. 
  • Lung-function test: A pulmonary or lung-function test looks for obstructions in the breathing process. 
  • Blood-gas test: Chronic bronchitis can lower oxygen and increase carbon-dioxide levels in the bloodstream. 
  • CT scan: Doctors use CT scans to locate dilated air spaces in the lungs that are indicative of COPD or emphysema. 

How Is Chronic Bronchitis Treated?

Chronic bronchitis can’t be cured but its symptoms can be addressed and controlled. There are two primary avenues of response: medical treatment and lifestyle change.

  • Medical treatments
    • Bronchodilator. A bronchodilator is a vaporous medication that opens the lung’s air passages, making it easier to breathe. 
    • Theophylline. Theophylline, an oral medication, relaxes the pulmonary muscles and improves respiration. 
    • Steroids. Steroidal medications, taken orally or by inhaler, are prescribed when bronchodilators and theophylline fail to provide relief. 
    • Pulmonary rehabilitation. A comprehensive approach to managing bronchitis, pulmonary rehabilitation involves exercise, improved diet, and breathing exercises and strategies. 
  • Lifestyle changes
    • Quit smoking. If you smoke, the most effective step you can take to manage bronchitis is to quit tobacco products. 
    • Use a humidifier. Humidifiers circulate warm, moist air that soothes breathing passages and helps loosen mucous for expulsion. 
    • Increase physical activity. Vigorous exercise can strengthen lung capacity and partially offset breathing dysfunction.
    • Try pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing is a technique for enhancing respiratory control and counteracting shortness of breath. 

What Is the Prognosis for Chronic Bronchitis?

The major risk associated with chronic bronchitis is a gradual loss of lung function. Your ability to manage this condition will depend primarily on your current lung function, your smoking status, the existence of medical complications, and the rate at which your symptoms grow in frequency and intensity. Maintaining lung function is the key to living successfully with chronic bronchitis.

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