What Is Chronic Bronchitis?
Chronic bronchitis is one of the major conditions contributing to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Bronchitis is a condition in which the air passages of the lungs become inflamed. The inflammation occurs in the trachea (or windpipe), and in the large and small bronchi (or tree-like air passages in the lungs). Bronchitis is the result of irritation or infection, and can either be short-lived (acute) or recurrent (chronic).
When irritation or infection is present in the lungs, the thin mucous linings that protect the lungs become inflamed. As a response to the inflammation, the airway linings start to leak fluids. Coughing is the body’s natural reflex to clear the air passageways in the lung. As a result, sufferers of bronchitis often exhibit a wet, painful cough.
If you suspect that you have chronic bronchitis, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine an accurate diagnosis and discuss the next steps for treatment.
Symptoms of chronic bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis often presents itself in a variety of symptoms that can leave patients with a decreased quality of life. While each patient may experience something slightly different, the most common symptoms associated with chronic bronchitis include:
- Chronic cough, could by dry or mucus-y
- Constant fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pressure
If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s important that you keep a symptoms journal and schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis and begin walking you through the treatment options available to you.
Causes of chronic bronchitis
The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 49% of smokers develop chronic bronchitis during their adult years. The reason that smoking is the leading cause of chronic bronchitis is that the chemicals in cigarettes can cause irritation and inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to scarring and an excess of mucus production — both of which lead to blocked airways.
Additional causes of chronic bronchitis include:
- Inhalation of chemicals and other irritants over time (smog, pollution, etc.)
- Bacterial infections in the lungs
- Other diseases such as congestive heart failure, asthma, cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis
- Autoimmune disease
- Gastric reflux
While these causes can contribute to the development of chronic bronchitis, exposure to anything on this list does not guarantee that you will develop this condition. However, the help prevent chronic bronchitis from developing, you should avoid the causes listed above to promote overall healthy lungs.
Diagnosing chronic bronchitis
If you suspect that you have chronic bronchitis, you can confirm a diagnosis by scheduling an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will likely begin the appointment by asking about your symptoms, as well as your family and medical history. Your doctor may also ask about your current lifestyle habits, such as smoking and chemical exposure on the jobsite.
In addition to this conversation, your doctor will likely have you complete a pulmonary function test before confirming a chronic bronchitis diagnosis. This pulmonary function test often requires you to blow into a special mouthpiece designed to measure the volume and force of oxygen that you produce. This will help your doctor determine whether or not your lungs are functioning at full capacity, and if they are not, it will help determine the severity of your condition.
You may also be required to undergo a physical examination, X-ray and lab work to confirm a chronic bronchitis diagnosis and determine the level of progression of this condition. Chronic bronchitis is a progressive lung disease that worsens over time, so it is important for your doctor to determine the level of severity of your chronic bronchitis as well as the diagnosis itself.
Finding treatment for chronic bronchitis
There are a number of treatment options available to help reduce the symptoms of chronic bronchitis. For many patients, doctors may recommend steroid medication to open the airways, as well as inhalers and oxygen therapy to help calm bouts of shortness of breath.
While these treatments are often effective at treating symptoms when they occur, they don’t act as preventative measures to keep the symptoms from happening.