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What is the Difference Between Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis?

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Updated May 27, 2014

Question: What is the Difference Between Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis?
Answer: Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two types of COPD that often coexist. Sometimes, it is difficult to understand the differences between the two, but both cause difficulty breathing and other lung related symptoms.

Emphysema is a type of COPD that causes a permanent enlargement of the airways in your lungs. It is accompanied by destruction of the walls of the alveoli, the tiny air spaces in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged during the breathing process. When the alveoli are destroyed, it makes it difficult for the person with emphysema to breathe, which is one of the hallmark symptoms of emphysema.

Emphysema is primarily caused by smoking. And once diagnosed, its path is irreversible.

Read more about emphysema, including signs and symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD that causes inflammation, or irritation, in the bronchioles of the lungs. The bronchioles connect the trachea, or windpipe, to the lungs. This irritation causes an increased amount of heavy mucus in the lungs that over time, interferes with breathing. The body responds to this mucus by producing a cough in an attempt to clear the airways. But because the mucus is so abundant and thick, it is often difficult for a person with chronic bronchitis to expel it. Additionally, large amounts of thick mucus makes the lungs a perfect habitat for bacteria to thrive. So bacterial lung infections among people who have chronic bronchitis are common and frequent.

In order for a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis to be made, you need to have a productive, long-term cough that lasts 3 months out of the year for 2 consecutive years. This differentiates it from acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smoking, secondhand smoke and air pollution.

Learn more about chronic bronchitis signs and symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

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