Chronic Bronchitis

What is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the main airways of the lungs (bronchi), manifesting as cough with excessive mucus production (sputum) on most days of the week,  for at least 3 months a year, for 2 or more consecutive years, but not due to some other known disease (such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, bronchiectasis). Chronic bronchitis is part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There are about 9 million cases of chronic bronchitis diagnosed in the US annually.

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What causes it?

The most common cause is cigarette smoking. Second-hand (bystander) smoke can also cause chronic bronchitis. Other potential causes include industrial dusts (such as silica), fumes, and respiratory irritants.

What are the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

The main symptom is a productive, chronic cough. Patients with chronic bronchitis may also experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and sometimes chest pains. At times, patients may have an acute exacerbation, which may include fever, worsening shortness of breath, malaise, and increased volume and purulence (discoloration) of sputum.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

After performing a history and physical examination, your doctor may order additional tests. Spirometry (or complete pulmonary function testing), chest x-ray, pulse oximetry, and complete blood count are commonly obtained. Your doctor may also test arterial blood gases, sputum testing, or chest CT scanning. Only rarely is a lung biopsy needed.

How is chronic bronchitis treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. The key is smoking cessationand avoidance of known lung irritants. Vaccinations against pneumococcal pneumonia  and influenza should be current. If you develop a bacterial respiratory infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics. These should be taken completely, as prescribed. Inhaled bronchodilators and/or inhaled corticosteroids may help symptom relief. Sometimes, oral corticosteroids are needed. For some patients, physical or respiratory therapy may be of benefit. Some individuals with chronic bronchitis may need oxygen therapy. Avoid exposure to people with colds or respiratory infections.

Where can I get more information?

American Lung Association
American Thoracic Society