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What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, the main air passages in the lungs, which persists for a long period or repeatedly recurs. The condition is characterized by excessive bronchial mucus and a productive cough that produces sputum for 3 months or more in at least 2 consecutive years, without any other disease that could account for this symptom.

Cigarette smoking is the main cause. The longer and heavier a person smokes, the more likely it becomes that the person will get bronchitis and that the bronchitis will be severe. Secondhand smoke may also cause chronic bronchitis. Air pollution, infection, and allergies make it worse.

Chronic bronchitis may have different symptoms in different people. Chronic bronchitis develops slowly over time. The cells that line the respiratory system contain fine, hair-like outgrowths from the cell called cilia. Normally, the cilia of many cells beat rhythmically to move mucus along the airways. When smoke or other irritants are inhaled, the cilia become paralyzed or snap off. When this occurs, the cilia are no longer able to move mucus, and the airways become inflamed, narrowed, and clogged. This leads to difficulty breathing and can progress to the life-threatening disease emphysema. A mild cough, sometimes called smokers' cough, is usually the first visible sign of chronic bronchitis. Coughing brings up phlegm, although the amount varies considerably from person to person. Wheezing and shortness of breath may accompany the cough. Diagnostic tests show a decrease in lung function. As the disease advances, breathing becomes difficult and activity decreases. The body does not get enough oxygen, leading to changes in the composition of the blood.

Diagnosis of chronic bronchitis begins with a medical history and physical examination. Lung function tests can identify chronic bronchitis in Stage 0, even before the individual has symptoms. Lung function tests measure how much air a person can take in with a deep breath. They also measure how fast the person can push the air back out of the lungs. The healthcare provider may also order a chest X-ray and blood tests.

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing complications. It is crucial to quit smoking to prevent worsening of chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory irritants should be avoided. Inhaled medications that dilate the airways and decrease inflammation may help reduce symptoms, such as wheezing. Antibiotics may be prescribed for infections as needed. Corticosteroids may occasionally be used during flare-ups of wheezing, or in people with severe bronchitis not responding to other treatments. Physical exercise programs, breathing exercises, and patient education programs all contribute to the treatment plan. Oxygen therapy may be needed in severe cases. In very severe cases, lung transplantation may be recommended.

More information on bronchitis

What is bronchitis? - Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, or bronchi, that bring air into the lungs. Chronic bronchitis is a sign of serious lung disease.
What is acute bronchitis? - Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, but can also be caused by a bacterial infection and can heal without complications.
What is chronic bronchitis? - Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, the main air passages in the lungs, which persists for a long period or repeatedly recurs.
What causes bronchitis? - Bronchitis is usually caused by infection with a virus. Several viruses cause bronchitis, including influenza A and B.
What're the symptoms of bronchitis? - Symptoms of acute bronchitis usually begins with the symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose, sneezing, and dry cough.
How is bronchitis diagnosed? - Diagnosis of bronchitis is based on observing the patient's symptoms and health history. Arterial blood gases should be monitored.
What's the treatment for bronchitis? - Conventional treatment for acute bronchitis may consist of simple measures such as getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, avoiding smoke and fumes.
How to prevent bronchitis? - Good hygiene can reduce the spread of viral infection. Immunizations against influenza and pertussis can reduce the risk for bacterial bronchitis.
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