Chronic bronchitis is a long-term disease of the lungs. It is a problem with the airways of the lungs. Injury or irritation causes these airways to swell and develop extra mucus. This makes it difficult to move air in and out of the lungs. It will make breathing difficult.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Chronic Bronchitis
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Chronic bronchitis is caused by damage to the airways. The damage is caused by:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Inhaling toxins or other irritants
  • Genetic predisposition can make a person's lungs more susceptible to damage from smoke or pollutants—one example of a genetic disorder is alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency

Risk Factors

Cigarette smoking is the greatest risk factor for developing chronic bronchitis. The number of cigarettes smoked and years as a smoker increase the risk of disease. Frequent and long-term smoking also increase the chance of severe chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is more common in people over 40 years old. Other factors that may increase the chance of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Long-term exposure to chemicals, dust, and other substances that have been inhaled
  • Long-term cigar or marijuana smoking
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Family members with COPD
  • History of frequent childhood lung infections
  • Long term asthma


Chronic bronchitis may cause:

  • Cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, especially after mild activity or exercise
  • Recurring respiratory infections that cause symptoms to worsen
  • Wheezing when breathing
  • Fatigue


To diagnose chronic bronchitis, symptoms of productive cough must have been present for 3 or more months in at least 2 consecutive years, and not have been caused by another condition. You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include the following:

  • Breathing tests to check lung function
  • Blood tests

Images of the lungs may be taken with:


There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. There are treatments that can reduce symptoms and improve lung function. The best way to reduce symptoms is to stop smoking.

Treatment options may include one or more of the following:


Medications may include bronchodilators or steroids. They may help manage chronic bronchitis by:

  • Opening the airways
  • Relaxing the breathing passages
  • Decreasing inflammation

Some medication may be taken as pills or liquids. Others are inhaled medication that is delivered directly to the lungs.

Antibiotics are rarely prescribed to treat chronic bronchitis. They may be needed to treat a lung infection that has developed because of the chronic bronchitis.


Lung infections like pneumonia or other infections like the flu can make symptoms worse. Get vaccinated against pneumonia and the flu. The flu vaccine may also reduce flare ups.


Oxygen therapy may be helpful if blood oxygen levels are too low. It can relieve breathing problems and improve energy. Oxygen may only be needed for specific activities or it may be given throughout the day.


Special exercises can strengthen chest muscles. This can make it easier to breathe.

Regular physical activity can reduce the workload on the lungs by building endurance. Physical activity is also associated with improved quality of life. Follow the doctor's recommendations for activity levels and restrictions.

Breathing and Coughing Techniques

Special methods of breathing can help bring more air into the lungs. They can also help force trapped air out of the lungs. Effective coughing techniques can also help clear mucus from the lungs. Ask the doctor if these techniques will be helpful. Some examples include:

  • Pursed lip breathing
  • Controlled coughing technique

Lifestyle Changes

Symptoms can be managed by:

  • Pacing activities.
  • Learning relaxation techniques and other methods to manage stress.
  • Seeking emotional support from professionals, family, and friends. Anxiety can increase the rate of respiration, making breathing more strenuous.


To help reduce the chance of chronic bronchitis:

  • Quit smoking. The doctor can help with finding a successful program.
  • Avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Avoid exposure to air pollution or irritants.
  • Wear protective gear if exposed to irritants or toxins at work.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD
  • Review Date: 03/2018 -
  • Update Date: 03/08/2016 -