Learning About Chronic Bronchitis

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Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in left lung, with detail of healthy airway and airway inflamed by chronic bronchitis

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is long-term swelling and the buildup of mucus in the airways of your lungs. The airways (bronchial tubes) get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for you to breathe. It can also make you cough. It is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by smoking. But chemical fumes, dust, or air pollution also can cause it over time.

What can you expect when you have chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis gets worse over time. You cannot undo the damage to your lungs.

Over time, you may find that:

  • You get short of breath even when you do things like get dressed or fix a meal.
  • It is hard to eat or exercise.
  • You feel weaker and limit activity.

Over many years, the swelling and mucus from chronic bronchitis make it more likely that you will get lung infections.

But there are things you can do to prevent more damage and feel better.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of chronic bronchitis are:

  • A cough that will not go away.
  • Mucus that comes up when you cough.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse when you exercise.

At times, your symptoms may suddenly flare up and get much worse. This is a called an exacerbation (say "egg-ZASS-er-BAY-shun"). When this happens, your usual symptoms quickly get worse and stay bad. This can be dangerous. You may have to go to the hospital.

How can you keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse?

Don't smoke. That is the best way to keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse. If you already smoke, it is never too late to stop. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.

You can do other things to keep chronic bronchitis from getting worse:

  • Avoid bad air. Air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust also can make chronic bronchitis worse.
  • Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccines can prevent serious illness from COVID-19.
  • Get a flu shot every year. A shot may keep the flu from turning into something more serious, like pneumonia. A flu shot also may lower your chances of having a flare-up.
  • Get a pneumococcal shot. A shot can prevent some of the serious complications of pneumonia. Ask your doctor how often you should get this shot.
  • Get a pertussis shot. A whooping cough (pertussis) shot may help protect you from getting whooping cough.

How is chronic bronchitis treated?

Chronic bronchitis is treated with medicines and oxygen. You also can take steps to stay healthy and keep your condition from getting worse.

Medicines and oxygen therapy

  • You may be taking medicines such as:
    • Bronchodilators. These help open your airways and make breathing easier. Bronchodilators are either short-acting (work for 4 to 9 hours) or long-acting (work for 12 to 24 hours). You inhale most bronchodilators, so they start to act quickly. Always carry your quick-relief inhaler with you in case you need it.
    • Corticosteroids. These reduce airway inflammation. They come in inhaled or pill form.
    • Antibiotics. These medicines are used when you have a bacterial lung infection.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Oxygen therapy boosts the amount of oxygen in your blood and helps you breathe easier. Use the flow rate your doctor has recommended, and do not change it without talking to your doctor first.

Other care

  • If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
  • Learn breathing methods—such as breathing through pursed lips—to help you become less short of breath.
  • If your doctor has not set you up with a pulmonary rehabilitation program, ask your doctor if rehab is right for you. Rehab includes exercise programs, education about your disease and how to manage it, help with diet and other changes, and emotional support.
  • Eat regular, healthy meals. Use bronchodilators about 1 hour before you eat to make it easier to eat. Try eating smaller, frequent meals so your stomach is never too full. A full stomach can push on the muscle that helps you breathe (your diaphragm) and make it harder to breathe. Drink beverages at the end of the meal. Avoid foods that are hard to chew.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.