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Chronic bronchitis

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 6 minutes read
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Chronic bronchitis is where you have long-term symptoms of bronchitis and is defined as a daily productive cough that lasts for three months of the year, for at least two years in a row.

Bronchitis is an infection or inflammation of the bronchi, which are the largest airways of the lungs. These airways have a protective mechanism built into them where they produce mucus, which traps anything that is not welcome in the airways and could be harmful to the lungs. It can then be coughed up and removed from the body.

When someone has bronchitis, something has irritated the airways, causing increased production of mucus. This leads to the body trying to get rid of the mucus and causes a productive cough. It may start as an on-and-off acute bronchitis and lead to chronic bronchitis.

What are the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

Symptoms can vary from person to person but here are the most common symptoms of chronic bronchitis:

  • Cough, often referred to as a smoker’s cough.
  • Coughing up phlegm (mucus).
  • Wheezing.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.

Those suffering with chronic bronchitis usually have a cough that produces phlegm for several years before they start to struggle with breathlessness.

Chronic bronchitis can also lead to:

  • Disability and mobility issues.
  • Regular chest infections like pneumonia that can be severe.
  • Breathing tubes (bronchi) narrowing.
  • Long term breathing issues.

Other less common symptoms of chronic bronchitis can include:

  • Reduced oxygen levels resulting in fingernails, lips, and skin appearing blue.
  • Breathing sounds crackly.
  • Swelling of feet.
  • Heart failure.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis can appear similar to other lung conditions or health problems so it’s best to speak to your doctor.

What classifies it as chronic bronchitis?

It is called chronic bronchitis if:

  • You have a cough and phlegm regularly for at least 3 months a year, for 2 consecutive years.
  • Your doctor confirms that tuberculosis or another lung disease is not responsible for symptoms.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Pulmonary function tests

These tests are used to measure how easily air can move in and out of your lungs. Special machines that you breathe into are usually used. They can include:

Spirometry:

Spirometry is a simple test carried out using a spirometer to help diagnose and monitor certain lung conditions. A small machine is attached by a cable to a mouthpiece to measure how much air you can breathe out in a signal forced breath. It’s a common pulmonary function test and can be used to:

  • Test your lungs’ ability to take in, hold, and move air.
  • Test your lung capacity.
  • Monitor for lung disease.
  • Find out if your treatment is working effectively.
  • Measure the severity of your lung disease.
  • Work out if your lung disease is restrictive or obstructive. Restrictive means your lungs take in less air than usual while obstructive is where less air is able to get out of your lungs.

A spirometry test can check for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and pulmonary fibrosis.

Chest X-ray:

An X-ray makes pictures of your lungs using radiation to rule out other illnesses that can impact your breathing. It also looks at your internal tissues, bones, and organs.

CT scan:

X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans are combined to create images of the body. CT scans are able to present highly accurate images of different parts of the body. CT scans provide more detail than an X-ray when looking at bones, muscles and internal organs.

Pulse oximetry

This test is done using an oximeter which is a small machine used to calculate how much oxygen is in your blood. A compact sensor is clipped or taped to one of your fingers or toes to get a reading and it’s completely painless. This will give a good indication of how much oxygen is entering the blood circulation and ow much reoxygenation is occurring.

Arterial blood gas

This test looks at how much oxygen and carbon dioxide is present in your blood while also calculating the acidity of your blood.

How can chronic bronchitis be treated?

Chronic bronchitis cannot be cured but there are different treatments that can make it easier to help you deal with your symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis is one of two conditions alongside emphysema that make up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These are long-term lung conditions that require lifelong management and treatment that could include:

  • Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke.
  • Avoiding harmful chemicals and substances that irritate the lungs.
  • Using a medical prescription that clears phlegm and opens up the airways.
  • Medications like bronchodilators that relax the muscles in the lungs and widen airways to help with breathing.
  • Using portable containers with oxygen in them.
  • Using a humidifier in your home and workspace.
  • Taking a pulmonary rehab course to better understand how to live with chronic bronchitis and live an active life.
  • Lung reduction surgery to remove parts of your lung that are damaged. This helps reduce the burden on the healthier parts of the lungs.
  • In extremely rare cases, a lung transplant may be recommended.

Is chronic bronchitis contagious?

Chronic bronchitis itself is not contagious, except if a viral or bacterial infection has caused a flare-up, this could be contagious. If it is caused by a virus, you can be contagious for up to a week. If it’s a bacterial infection and you start a treatment of antibiotics, you should stop being contagious soon after starting treatment.

Bronchitis brought on by other causes is not contagious.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any worrisome symptoms that you think could be chronic bronchitis, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fever or feeling severely unwell then you should seek urgent medical advice.

You should book an appointment with your doctor. They may recommend tests that look at your lungs to determine if it is chronic bronchitis and to rule out other causes for your symptoms.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

If you have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, or your symptoms are similar, you should not try self-treatment. Your first step should be seeing your doctor, as your mainstay of treatment should be from prescription medications.

Here’s some helpful tips to get the most out of your visit to your doctor:

  • Understand why you are visiting your doctor and what you aim to get out of this visit.
  • Write down any questions you want your doctor to answer.
  • You could bring a friend or family member with you to help ask questions and remember what your doctor tells you.
  • Taking notes of any medicines, treatments, tests or advice you are given.
  • Understand why you are being recommended or prescribed any treatment and be aware of any possible side effects. Also find out the risks of not taking the treatment that has been suggested by your doctor.
  • Make a note of any follow-up appointments in your phone’s calendar or write it down somewhere safe and find out how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have further questions.

Can I still work with chronic bronchitis?

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may still be able to work depending on the type of job you do. It may impact your ability to perform your usual work routines and make things more difficult. Your doctor will be able to advise you on what type of tasks you are fit to perform.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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