Long-Term Cough? How to Tell If You Have Chronic Bronchitis

Plus Your Treatment and Prevention Plan

doctor listening to patient's lungs during cough
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If you have a persistent cough that just won't go away, you might have chronic bronchitis. Like emphysema, chronic bronchitis is among a group of lung diseases known as COPD. Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis is irreversible. But there is hope. Here's what you need to know about chronic bronchitis diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation and irritation of the airways: the tubes in your lungs where air passes through.

These airways are also called bronchial tubes, which give bronchitis its name. When the air tubes are inflamed and irritated, thick mucus begins to form in them. Over time, this mucus plugs up the airways of the lungs and makes breathing difficult.

Nearly 9 million people were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic bronchitis can occur in all ages and genders, but is more likely to affect those older than 45 and women.

Like other types of COPD, chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smoking, second hand smoke and air pollution.The disease usually affects people who have a history of smoking and repeated infections of the lungs. Allergies and respiratory infections can make chronic bronchitis worse, and people who are diagnosed with chronic bronchitis are more likely to develop recurring infections in the lungs.

Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

Talk to your doctor if you're experiencing any of these symptoms, as they could be signs of chronic bronchitis:

  • Long-term cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Labored breathing
  • Frequent clearing of the throat

The cough that accompanies chronic bronchitis is sometimes brought on by cold weather, dampness and things that irritate the lungs, such as fumes or smoke.

Diagnosing Chronic Bronchitis

If you have a cough for just a couple of weeks or days, you probably don't have chronic bronchitis. But if your cough persists for at least three months and you have about two years in a row, your doctor will likely diagnose you with chronic bronchitis.

After filling out a complete medical history, including family, environmental and occupational exposure, and smoking history, your doctor may order the following diagnostic tests:

  • Arterial blood gases test
  • Chest X-ray
  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Complete blood count

Treating Chronic Bronchitis

The main goals in the treatment of chronic bronchitis are to keep the airways open and functioning properly, to help clear the airways of mucus to avoid lung infections and to prevent further disability. Treatment methods include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Antibiotics (if a bacterial infection is present)
  • Bronchodilators
  • Postural Drainage
  • Chest physiotherapy
  • Fluids (to help loosen mucus)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 Inhibitors

Quit Smoking to Prevent Chronic Bronchitis

As with any type of COPD, quitting smoking remains the most important factor in the treatment and prevention of chronic bronchitis.

Smoking causes the airways in the lungs to become constricted, or narrowed, and paralyzes the cilia in the lungs, which help the lungs remove irritating particles.

Talk with your doctor if you want to quit smoking but aren't sure where to start. Many options are available to those who wish to quit smoking but haven't been successful doing so on their own, including stop smoking aids, support groups and counseling. Quitting is the best thing that you can do for your lungs and, ultimately, for your health.


Smeltzer, Suzanne C. & Bare, Brenda, G. (1996). Brunnuer and Suddarth's Testbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing(8th Edition). Pennsylvania, PA: Lipponcott-Raven Publishers.

Summary Health Statistics for U.S.Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2012. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_260.pdf

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