Chronic Bronchitis

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a condition where there is ongoing inflammation of the smaller airways of the lung. It is defined as a cough, which lasts for at least 3 months in two consecutive years. The most common cause is smoking, though exposure to irritating substances at work can also cause this condition. Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Avoiding breathing in cigarette smoke or irritating substances can help to prevent this condition, and is important to stop ongoing damage to the airways. Although the damage caused by long-term inflammation in the airways may be irreversible, many people learn to manage and live with their symptoms.


Chronic bronchitis is a condition where the small airways in the lungs (the bronchi and bronchioles) are irritated and inflamed. This causes swelling and narrowing of these airways. If this goes on for a long time, this swelling and narrowing become permanent. The most common cause for this condition is smoking. Other causes include long-term exposure to chemical irritants at work or air pollution. These substances irritate the airways and cause them to become inflamed. Chronic bronchitis is most common in middle aged men, although it can affect anyone who has breathed in irritating substances over a long period of time.


The most common symptom of chronic bronchitis is a cough which brings up mucus. This should be present more often than not over a period of three months. People with chronic bronchitis may also experience shortness of breath when exercising, wheeze, tiredness, headaches, and chest discomfort.


Diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms, a physical examination and a test of lung function, called spirometry. A chest X-ray may be needed to examine the lungs and exclude other possible causes for the symptoms.


The most important part of treatment, if applicable, is to stop smoking or to take steps to avoid breathing in other irritating chemicals. Other treatments include inhaled medications to reduce swelling and open up the airways. Some medications act to break up mucus in the airways. Specialized exercise programs for people with lung conditions -called pulmonary rehabilitation- not only help to improve fitness, but also teach effective techniques to improve breathing and to clear mucus from the airways. Some people find that breathing warm, humid air helps to reduce their symptoms.


Giving up smoking and avoiding substances which are harmful to the lungs helps to reduce the risk of developing chronic bronchitis. This may involve using protective equipment at work if irritating chemicals are used. People who have chronic bronchitis should be vaccinated against the flu to prevent episodes of severe symptoms.