Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis

Treatments & Medications

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. It includes:

  • emphysema – damage to the air sacs in the lungs
  • chronic bronchitis – long-term inflammation of the airways (bronchi)

Chronic bronchitis is a respiratory condition characterised by persistent inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that affects millions of people worldwide. Here, we aim to give you an in-depth overview of chronic bronchitis, exploring its causes, symptoms, and management strategies.

What is the definition of chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a respiratory condition characterised by the long-term inflammation and irritation of the bronchial tubes, which are the air passages that carry air to and from the lungs. It is considered a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The primary feature of chronic bronchitis is a persistent cough that produces excessive mucus on most days for at least three months in two consecutive years. This chronic cough and mucus production are caused by the inflammation and narrowing of the airways, leading to difficulty in breathing and other respiratory symptoms. Chronic bronchitis is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke or environmental pollutants, and it often coexists with other respiratory conditions.

What is the difference between acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis?

The two main types of bronchitis are acute or chronic. Chronic bronchitis is a serious, chronic condition that develops over time.  Symptoms may get better or worsen, however, they will not completely go away.  Acute bronchitis, often known as a ‘chest cold’ usually develops from a respiratory infection and goes away in a week or two. Chronic bronchitis is a more serious condition that develops over time. Symptoms may get better or worse, but they will never completely go away.

What are the causes and risk factors for chronic bronchitis?

The main cause of chronic bronchitis is long-term exposure to irritants that inflame and damage the bronchial tubes. The most common irritant is cigarette smoke, tobacco smoke, including both active smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. However, there are other factors that can contribute to the development of chronic bronchitis:

Environmental Factors

Prolonged exposure to environmental pollutants and occupational hazards can increase the risk of developing chronic bronchitis. These include industrial fumes, chemicals, chemical fumes, dust, and air pollution


Certain genetic factors may make some individuals more susceptible to chronic bronchitis. People with a family history of the condition may have a higher risk of developing it

Respiratory Infections

Repeated respiratory infections, especially during childhood, can cause damage to the bronchial tubes and increase the likelihood of developing chronic bronchitis later in life

Air Quality

Living in areas with poor air quality, high pollution levels, or exposure to biomass fuels (such as wood or coal) for heating and cooking can contribute to the development of chronic bronchitis

Age and Gender

Chronic bronchitis tends to affect older individuals more frequently. Additionally, men are at a slightly higher risk of developing the condition compared to women


Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of chronic bronchitis. The toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke directly irritate the bronchial tubes, leading to inflammation and damage over time

It is important to note that not all individuals exposed to these risk factors will develop chronic bronchitis. However, the presence of these factors increases the likelihood of developing the condition.

What is the pathophysiology of chronic bronchitis?

The pathophysiology of chronic bronchitis involves chronic inflammation and structural changes in the bronchial tubes. Prolonged exposure to irritants, especially cigarette smoke, triggers a series of events that contribute to the development and progression of the condition:

  • Irritation and Inflammation: Inhalation of irritants, such as cigarette smoke or environmental pollutants, leads to irritation of the bronchial tubes. The irritants stimulate the production of inflammatory cells and substances, causing chronic inflammation of the airways
  • Increased Mucus Production: Chronic inflammation stimulates the bronchial glands to produce excessive mucus. The mucus is thicker than normal and tends to accumulate in the airways, leading to the characteristic symptom of chronic bronchitis: a persistent cough with sputum production
  • Airway Obstruction: Inflammation and mucus production narrow the airway lumen, reducing airflow. The excessive mucus can block the smaller airways, further obstructing the movement of air in and out of the lungs. This leads to symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Impaired Ciliary Function: The normal function of tiny hair-like structures called cilia, which line the bronchial tubes, is disrupted in chronic bronchitis. The cilia are responsible for sweeping mucus and trapped particles out of the airways. In chronic bronchitis, the cilia become less effective, leading to impaired clearance of mucus and debris
  • Structural Changes: Chronic inflammation and repeated episodes of bronchial irritation cause structural changes in the bronchial tubes. The walls of the airways thicken and become scarred, narrowing the airway diameter and increasing airway resistance. This contributes to airflow limitation and difficulty in breathing
  • Infection Susceptibility: The excess mucus and impaired clearance make individuals with chronic bronchitis more prone to respiratory infections. These infections further exacerbate inflammation and mucus production, worsening symptoms and lung function

Over time, the persistent inflammation, mucus hyper-secretion, and structural changes in the airways become irreversible and result in chronic bronchitis. The progressive decline in lung function can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life and respiratory health.

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

The signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis can vary in severity and may include:

Persistent Cough

The hallmark symptom of chronic bronchitis is a persistent cough that lasts for at least three months in two consecutive years. The cough is often productive, meaning it produces mucus or sputum. The cough may be worse in the morning or when exposed to irritants

Excessive Mucus or phlegm Production

Chronic bronchitis is characterised by an increased production of mucus in the airways. The mucus is typically thick, sticky, and may be discoloured (yellow, green, or grey)

Shortness of Breath

Breathlessness or shortness of breath, especially during physical activity, is a common symptom of chronic bronchitis. As the airways become inflamed and narrowed, it becomes more difficult for air to pass in and out of the lungs


Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that occurs during breathing. It is caused by the narrowing of the airways and can be heard when exhaling. Wheezing may vary in intensity and can be a persistent symptom in chronic bronchitis

Chest Discomfort

People with chronic bronchitis may experience chest tightness, discomfort, or a feeling of pressure in the chest. This symptom is often a result of the narrowed airways and increased effort required to breathe


Chronic bronchitis can lead to fatigue and reduced energy levels. The ongoing inflammation, coughing, and difficulty breathing can disrupt sleep and make individuals feel tired and worn out

Recurrent Respiratory Infections

Chronic bronchitis weakens the immune system and impairs the clearance of mucus from the airways, making individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections. Frequent respiratory infections, such as colds and flu, may occur


In severe cases, chronic bronchitis can cause cyanosis, a bluish discolouration of the lips, fingertips, or skin. Cyanosis indicates a lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood

It’s important to note that these symptoms can overlap with other respiratory conditions, and a proper medical evaluation is necessary to diagnose chronic bronchitis accurately. If you are experiencing persistent respiratory symptoms, it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate management.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Diagnosing chronic bronchitis involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and specific diagnostic tests. The following are the key steps in the diagnosis of chronic bronchitis:

Medical History

The healthcare provider will inquire about your symptoms, including the presence of a persistent cough with sputum production for at least three months in two consecutive years. They will also ask about your smoking history, exposure to lung irritants, and any previous respiratory infections

Physical Examination

The healthcare provider will perform a thorough physical examination, including listening to your chest with a stethoscope. They will check for abnormal breath sounds, such as wheezing or crackles, and assess the overall respiratory function

Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs)

PFTs are a series of tests that measure lung function and airflow. The most common test is spirometry, which assesses how well you can breathe in and out and measures the amount of air you can forcefully exhale in one second (FEV1). PFTs help evaluate the severity of airflow limitation and determine if there is underlying obstructive lung disease

Chest X-ray or CT Scan

Imaging tests like chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan may be ordered to assess the condition of the lungs and rule out other potential causes of respiratory symptoms. These tests can help identify any structural abnormalities, signs of infection, or complications

Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) Test

In more severe cases, an ABG test may be performed to measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. This test helps assess the severity of respiratory impairment and provides information about the need for supplemental oxygen

Sputum Culture

If there is a suspicion of a bacterial infection contributing to chronic bronchitis, a sputum sample may be collected and analysed for the presence of bacteria. This helps guide the choice of appropriate antibiotics, if necessary

Blood tests

It is important to note that the diagnosis of chronic bronchitis requires the presence of a chronic cough with excessive mucus production for a significant period, in addition to ruling out other potential causes of respiratory symptoms. The healthcare provider will consider the duration, frequency, and severity of symptoms, as well as the results of diagnostic tests, to make an accurate diagnosis of chronic bronchitis.

What are the treatment options for chronic bronchitis?

The treatment of chronic bronchitis aims to alleviate symptoms, improve lung function, and enhance quality of life. The following are the main treatment options:

Lifestyle Changes

  • Smoking Cessation: Quitting smoking is the most crucial step in managing chronic bronchitis. It helps slow down the progression of the disease and reduces the risk of further lung damage
  • Avoidance of Lung Irritants: Minimise exposure to environmental pollutants, occupational hazards, and secondhand smoke. Use protective measures such as masks or respirators when necessary
  • Good Indoor Air Quality: Ensure proper ventilation, use air purifiers, and avoid exposure to allergens and irritants in the home environment


  • Bronchodilators: These medications help relax the muscles around the airways, opening them up and improving airflow. Short-acting bronchodilators provide quick relief during exacerbations, while long-acting bronchodilators are used for daily maintenance
  • Inhaled Corticosteroids: These anti-inflammatory medications help reduce airway inflammation and mucus production. They are often used in combination with bronchodilators for people with frequent exacerbations
  • Mucolytics: These medications help thin and loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up and clear from the airways

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs include exercise training, breathing exercises, and education on managing chronic bronchitis. These programs help improve lung function, reduce symptoms, and enhance overall physical and emotional well-being

Oxygen Therapy

Supplemental oxygen may be prescribed for individuals with severe chronic bronchitis and low blood oxygen levels. Oxygen therapy improves oxygenation, relieves breathlessness, and enhances physical activity


Annual influenza (flu) vaccination and pneumococcal vaccination are recommended for individuals with chronic bronchitis to prevent respiratory infections and associated complications

Management of Exacerbations

Exacerbations are periods of increased symptoms and lung function decline. They may require additional treatments, including short courses of oral corticosteroids, antibiotics (if a bacterial infection is present), and increased use of bronchodilators

What medications are used in chronic bronchitis?

Several medications are commonly used in the management of chronic bronchitis to alleviate symptoms, reduce inflammation, and improve lung function. The specific medications prescribed may vary depending on the individual’s condition and the severity of symptoms. Here are some medications commonly used:


  • Short-acting bronchodilators: These medications provide quick relief by relaxing the muscles around the airways, allowing them to open up and improve airflow. They are typically used as rescue medications during acute exacerbations. Examples include albuterol (Ventolin, ProAir) and ipratropium bromide (Atrovent)
  • Long-acting bronchodilators: These medications are used for daily maintenance to provide sustained bronchodilation and improve symptoms. They are usually prescribed as a combination product with an inhaled corticosteroid. Examples include salmeterol (Serevent), formoterol (Fordable), and tiotropium (Spiriva)

Inhaled Corticosteroids

These anti-inflammatory medications help reduce airway inflammation, swelling, and mucus production. They are commonly used in combination with long-acting bronchodilators for daily maintenance. Examples include fluticasone (Flovent), budesonide (Pulmicort), and mometasone (Asmanex)


Mucolytic medications help thin and loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up and clear from the airways. They can be helpful in reducing mucus congestion. Examples include acetylcysteine (Mucomyst) and dornase alfa (Pulmozyme)


Antibiotics are prescribed if there is evidence of a bacterial infection, such as increased sputum production or changes in sputum colour. They are used to treat acute exacerbations of chronic bronchitis. Commonly prescribed antibiotics include amoxicillin, azithromycin, and doxycycline


  • Annual Influenza (flu) vaccination: People with chronic bronchitis are at increased risk of complications from influenza, so annual flu vaccinations are recommended
  • Pneumococcal vaccination: The pneumococcal vaccine protects against certain strains of bacteria that can cause pneumonia, a common complication in individuals with chronic bronchitis

It is important to note that medication choices and treatment plans should be determined by a healthcare professional based on an individual’s specific needs and medical history. Adherence to prescribed medications and regular follow-up with healthcare providers are essential for optimal management of chronic bronchitis.

Impact of chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and overall quality of life. The condition can cause both physical and emotional effects. Here are some of the impacts of chronic bronchitis:

  • Respiratory Symptoms: Chronic bronchitis is characterised by persistent coughing, excessive mucus production, wheezing, and shortness of breath. These symptoms can be distressing and affect daily activities, such as walking, exercising, and even simple tasks like climbing stairs
  • Reduced Lung Function: Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation, narrowing of the airways, and scarring of lung tissues. Over time, this leads to a progressive decline in lung function, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to breathe efficiently
  • Decreased Exercise Tolerance: Breathlessness and reduced lung capacity can limit an individual’s ability to engage in physical activities. This can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, muscle deconditioning, and a loss of physical fitness
  • Impact on Daily Life: Chronic bronchitis can significantly impact daily life and independence. The symptoms and limitations may affect work productivity, social activities, hobbies, and overall quality of life
  • Exacerbations and Hospitalisations: Individuals with chronic bronchitis are prone to recurrent exacerbations, which are periods of increased symptoms and lung function decline. Severe exacerbations may require hospitalisation and can have a substantial impact on an individual’s well-being and healthcare utilisation
  • Emotional and Psychological Effects: Living with chronic bronchitis can lead to emotional distress and psychological impact. Breathlessness, fatigue, and limitations in daily activities can cause frustration, anxiety, depression, and a reduced sense of well-being
  • Impact on Sleep: Chronic bronchitis can disrupt sleep patterns due to persistent coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness. Poor sleep quality can lead to fatigue, daytime sleepiness, and reduced cognitive function
  • Increased Risk of Respiratory Infections: The chronic inflammation and impaired clearance of mucus make individuals with chronic bronchitis more susceptible to respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchial infections. These infections can further worsen symptoms and impact overall health
  • Financial Burden on Health System: Chronic bronchitis may result in increased healthcare costs, including medication expenses, hospitalisations, and regular medical follow-ups. It can also lead to work absenteeism and loss of productivity, resulting in financial burdens for individuals and their families

What chronic bronchitis support organisations are there available to support me in the UK?

In the UK, there are several organisations that provide support and resources for individuals with chronic bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. Here are some notable organisations:

  • British Lung Foundation (BLF). The BLF is a leading charity dedicated to supporting people with lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis. They provide information, resources, and support through their website, helpline, and local support groups. The BLF also funds research and campaigns for better respiratory health
  • British Thoracic Society (BTS). The BTS is a professional society that focuses on respiratory medicine. They offer resources and guidelines for healthcare professionals, but their website also provides information and publications that can be helpful for individuals with chronic bronchitis
  • Asthma UK. Asthma UK is a charity that supports individuals with asthma, which often coexists with chronic bronchitis. They provide resources, advice, and support through their website, helpline, and online community
  • Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland. Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland is a charity that supports individuals with chest and respiratory conditions, including chronic bronchitis. They offer information, support, and various services to help improve the lives of those affected
  • Alpha-1 UK Support Group. The Alpha-1 UK Support Group focuses on supporting individuals with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic condition that can lead to chronic bronchitis. They provide information, resources, and a supportive community for those affected

What chronic bronchitis support organisations are there available to support me in the US?

In the United States, there are several organisations that provide support, education, and resources for individuals with chronic bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. Here are some prominent organisations:

  • American Lung Association (ALA). The ALA is a leading nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting lung health and supporting individuals with lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis. They offer educational resources, support programs, advocacy efforts, and community initiatives. The ALA website provides information on lung health, disease management, and local support groups
  • COPD Foundation. The COPD Foundation focuses on raising awareness and providing support for individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis. They offer educational materials, research updates, online communities, and advocacy resources
  • American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). The AARC is a professional organisation for respiratory therapists and healthcare professionals. While primarily focused on healthcare providers, their website provides educational resources, information on respiratory conditions, and access to local respiratory care professionals
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Chronic bronchitis is a prevalent respiratory condition characterised by persistent inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Understanding its causes, recognising its symptoms, and implementing appropriate management strategies are vital in improving the quality of life for individuals living with this condition. By adopting a holistic approach that includes lifestyle modifications, medications, and pulmonary rehabilitation, individuals with chronic bronchitis can effectively manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

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NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information in this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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