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Chronic Bronchitis

Complete Guide to Chronic Bronchitis


Updated October 29, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Smoker's Cough

Cough: A Common Symptom of Chronic Bronchitis

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Chronic Bronchitis Defined

Chronic bronchitis, like emphysema, is among a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation and irritation of the airways, the tubes in your lungs where air passes through. These airways are also called bronchial tubes, hence the name bronchitis. When the air tubes are inflamed and irritated, thick mucus begins to form in them. Over time, this mucus plugs up the airways of the lungs and makes breathing difficult.

Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis is irreversible and its path is one of frequent recurrences.


According to the American Lung Association, in 2004, approximately 9 million people in the United States were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis can occur in all ages, but is more likely to affect those over 45 years. Unlike emphysema, chronic bronchitis affects women more than men. In 2004, 2.8 million males were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis compared to 6.3 million women.


Like other types of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smoking, second hand smoke, and air pollution. Additionally, allergies, and infection are known factors that can cause exacerbation of chronic bronchitis. In fact, people who are diagnosed with chronic bronchitis are more likely to develop recurring infections in the lungs.

Signs and Symptoms

People with chronic bronchitis may experience the following symptoms:

The cough that accompanies chronic bronchitis is sometimes brought on by cold weather, dampness and things that irritate the lungs, such as fumes or smoke. Usually, the patient will have a history of smoking and repeated infections of the lungs.

To learn more about the signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis, visit Symptom Checker, an interactive tool designed to help you understand your disease.


The presence of a productive, long-term cough that lasts 3 months out of the year for 2 consecutive years points doctors in the diagnostic direction of chronic bronchitis.

A diagnosis of chronic bronchitis is made by obtaining a complete history, including family, environmental and occupational exposure, and smoking history. Diagnostic tests may include:


The main goals in the treatment of chronic bronchitis is to keep the airways open and functioning properly, to help clear the airways of mucus to avoid lung infections and to prevent further disability. Treatment methods include:


As with any type of COPD, quitting smoking remains the most important factor in the treatment and prevention of chronic bronchitis. Smoking causes the airways in the lungs to become constricted, or narrowed, and paralyzes the cilia in the lungs, which help the lungs remove irritating particles. Smoking also causes surfactant, the fluid that helps the lungs to expand, to become inactivated.

Many options are available to those who wish to quit smoking and cannot do it on their own, including stop smoking aids, support groups and counseling. Learn more about the options available to you if you have a desire to quit. It is the best thing that you can do for your lungs and ultimately for your health.

Still having trouble understanding chronic bronchitis? Watch this informative, About.com COPD video.


COPD Fact Sheet. American Lung Association. http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=252866.

Smeltzer, Suzanne C. & Bare, Brenda, G. (1996). Brunnuer and Suddarth's Testbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing (8th Edition). Pennsylvania, PA: Lipponcott-Raven Publishers.

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