Learning About Chronic Bronchitis

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

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 is a form 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.

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 simple things like get dressed or fix a meal.
  • It is hard to eat or exercise.
  • You lose weight and feel weaker.

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?

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 can you keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse?

Don't smoke. That is the best way to keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse. If you already smoke, it is never too late to stop. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.

You can do other things to keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse:

  • Avoid bad air. Air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust also can make chronic bronchitis worse.
  • Get a flu shot every year. A shot may keep the flu from turning into something more serious, like pneumonia. A flu shot also may lower your chances of having a flare-up.
  • Get a pneumococcal shot. Most people need only one shot to prevent pneumonia, but doctors sometimes recommend a second shot for some people who got their first shot before they turned 65. Talk with your doctor about whether you need a second shot.

How is chronic bronchitis treated?

Chronic bronchitis is treated with medicines and oxygen. You also can take steps at home 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 6 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 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 while you are away from home.
    • Corticosteroids. These reduce airway inflammation. They come in pill or inhaled form. You must take these medicines every day for them to work well.
    • Antibiotics. These medicines are used when you have a bacterial lung infection.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line 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 at home

  • 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 2½ hours a 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, talk to him or her about whether 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. Eat several small meals instead of three large ones. Drink beverages at the end of the meal. Avoid foods that are hard to chew.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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