Chronic Bronchitis: An Overview

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 07, 2024
7 min read

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 airways in your lungs (called bronchi or bronchial tubes) get irritated and inflamed, and you have coughs for at least 3 months a year for 2 years in a row. Excess mucus builds up in your lungs because of the inflammation caused by chronic bronchitis. This blocks your airways and makes it difficult to breathe. It’s a long-term illness that keeps coming back or never fully goes away. It’s one of the two main types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other type is emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis vs. emphysema

Both of these diseases are incurable. They share some similar symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath. And smoking is the leading cause of each. But they affect different parts of your lungs. Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation in your lungs’ airways. Emphysema damages the walls of air sacs, or alveoli, deep in your lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Many people with chronic bronchitis also have emphysema.

Chronic vs. acute bronchitis

Both conditions cause the airways in your lungs to become inflamed and swollen, leading to a mucus-filled cough. They have similar symptoms, like coughing and an abundance of mucus production. But there are significant differences between the two.

  • Acute bronchitis, also called a chest cold, is usually caused by a virus, though you can get it from a bacterial infection or inhaling certain allergens, dust, chemical fumes, or tobacco smoke. Acute bronchitis typically clears up on its own, without treatment, in less than 3 weeks.

  • Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, develops over time. Most of the time, smoking is to blame: Either you’re a smoker or you’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke. Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis stays with you for life.

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 at their worst in the winter, when humidity and temperatures drop.

Chronic bronchitis cough

Coughing is the most common symptom of chronic bronchitis. It’s a productive cough, meaning that you’ll cough up the mucus that builds up in your lungs due to inflammation. Your cough may be worse in the morning. Your cough also may return the sound of your breathing to normal, at least temporarily. The mucus that builds up in your lungs when you have chronic bronchitis can lead to rhonchi, a low-pitched sound like snoring. This sound often goes away for a while when you cough and clear the excess mucus in your lungs.

Cigarette smoking is by far the leading 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
  • Dust
  • 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 ages 44 to 65.

Chronic bronchitis may make it easier for you to catch respiratory infections like colds, the flu, and pneumonia.

Is chronic bronchitis contagious?

No. You can’t spread chronic bronchitis to other people and you can’t catch it from someone who has it. But your chronic bronchitis symptoms can be made worse by contagious diseases like the flu or the common cold.

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: This test 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 (CT): A CT scan gives 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.

Chronic bronchitis can’t be cured. The damage done to your lungs can't be reversed, and it usually gets worse over time. That’s the bad news. But the disease affects different people in different ways. Your chronic bronchitis may be mild rather than severe. 

There are many treatment options that can slow the disease, ease your symptoms, and keep you out of the hospital, especially if your doctor catches the disease early. Treatment has the potential to help you live a long, healthy, and comfortable life. The best things you can do to help yourself feel better are quit smoking and follow your treatment plan.

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 and staying up to date on COVID-19 boosters 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.

Chronic bronchitis almost always results from smoking, which damages your lungs over time. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, the best way to prevent chronic bronchitis is to quit — now. That’s not easy, as you likely know. Talk to your doctor about crafting a plan to quit. You can do it.

There are other steps you can take to lower your risk of chronic bronchitis. Do the following:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid hairspray, spray deodorant, and other aerosol products.
  • Avoid inhaling dust and chemical fumes.
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when around paint, pain remover, varnish, and other chemical fumes.
  • Follow safety guidelines, stay up to date on safety training, and wear protective equipment if your job requires you to work with harmful chemicals that can be inhaled.

If you smoke, quit. It will help prevent chronic bronchitis. If you already have the disease, quitting smoking will reduce the damage caused by chronic bronchitis. The disease is progressive, meaning it will get worse over time. But getting diagnosed early and following your treatment plan can slow it down and allow you to feel better.

  • Is chronic bronchitis contagious?

No. Most people get this disease from lung damage caused by smoking. It can’t spread from person to person.

  • How long does chronic bronchitis usually last?

There’s no cure, so you will have the disease for the rest of your life. While its symptoms can be eased with treatment, they never entirely go away.