Coughing is a way for your body to get rid of harmful things in your lungs. But coughing too much can be bad, too. If you’ve had a cough that’s gone on for what feels like forever, you might have a serious condition called chronic bronchitis.
That’s when the air tubes in your lungs called bronchi get irritated and inflamed, and you have coughs for at least 3 months a year for 2 years in a row. It’s a long-term illness that keeps coming back or never fully goes away. It’s a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other type is emphysema.
Chronic bronchitis fills your airways with thick mucus. The small hairs that normally move phlegm out of your lungs are damaged. That makes you cough. As the disease goes on, it’s harder for you to breathe.
Other signs of chronic bronchitis may include:
Your symptoms may be worst in the winter, when humidity and temperatures drop.
Cigarette smoking is by far the No. 1 cause of chronic bronchitis. More than 90% of people with the disease smoke or used to smoke. Other things that raise your chances for it include:
- Secondhand smoke
- Certain fumes, like hairspray if you work in a hair salon or house paint if you’re a building contractor
- Air pollution, welding fumes, engine exhaust
- Coal, fire smoke
Twice as many women get diagnosed with chronic bronchitis as men do. Most people who have the disease are 44 to 65.
Chronic bronchitis may make it easier for you to catch respiratory infections like colds, the flu, and pneumonia.
Your doctor will ask about your smoking history and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. You may take tests, including:
Pulmonary function tests: This is a series of measurements of how much air your lungs can hold while breathing in and out.
Chest X-ray: Uses radiation to make a picture of your lungs to rule out heart failure or other illnesses that make it hard to breathe.
Computed tomography: This CT scan give a much more detailed look at your airways than a chest X-ray.
Medication and lifestyle changes can lessen the symptoms of your chronic bronchitis and may slow or stop the disease from getting worse. Many people live with moderate symptoms for a long time, and breathe on their own without supplemental oxygen.
Your first step, if you smoke, is to quit. Your lungs will not fully recover, but the rate of decline will be much slower.
Airway openers (bronchodilators): These drugs relax your air passages to make it easier to breathe and relieve your bronchitis symptoms.
Anti-inflammatory drugs:Steroids lessen the swelling that narrows your air passages.
Oxygen therapy: This is for serious cases, where your lungs are so damaged that blood oxygen levels are extremely low. You can inhale oxygen from a portable machine at home as needed.
Specialized rehab program: If you are often short of breath, rehab therapy can teach you ways manage your disease. For example, you might learn a better way to breathe while you exercise.
Lung transplant: A new lung or lungs may help you live longer.
What You Can Do
Exercise. Just like with your biceps, you can build up the muscles that help you breathe. Try biking or walking 3 times a week. Workouts make you cough up mucus better.
Avoid bad air. Stay away from smokers. Don’t step into crowds during flu season. Wear a face mask if you’re working with things that have strong fumes, like varnish and house paint.
Get vaccinated. A yearly flu vaccine lowers your odds of a potentially deadly infection. Your doctor may also recommend you get a vaccine that protects you from pneumonia.
“Purse” your breaths. This trick makes it easier to breathe by opening up your airways. First, inhale through your nose to a count of 2. Then pucker your lips as if you’re about to kiss. Release your breath through your mouth to a count of 4. Practice pursed breathing whenever you’re in the middle of something hard, like climbing stairs.