Definition of Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis vs Acute Bronchitis - Symptoms and Causes

man coughing
What is bronchitis and what should I know about this form of COPD?.

Definition: Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused by chronic inflammation of the bronchi -- the airways leading from the trachea to the lungs.  

Criteria for Chronic Bronchitis: Acute vs Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is defined as a cough that produces sputum that occurs every day for three months in a row, with those periods occurring at least two years in a row.

The most common cause is smoking, but exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, and on-the-job chemicals may also cause this condition.

In contrast to acute bronchitis (a temporary condition related to a viral infection or environmental exposures), chronic bronchitis is a serious disease involving permanent damage to the airways.

Chronic Bronchitis is a Form Of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is now considered the 4th leading cause of deaths in the United States. Other forms of COPD include emphysema and bronchiectasis.

How Common is Chronic Bronchitis?

In 2014 there were 8.7 million people diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in the United States -- 3.7 percent of the population!

Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis may include:

  • A cough which is often productive of mucus. This cough is sometimes referred to as a chronic hacking smoker's cough. Sputum can be clear, yellow, green, or even blood tinged.
  • Shortness of breath, at first only with activity, and later on at rest
  • Wheezing - A whistling sound that is produced by partial obstruction of the airways
  • Chest pain

Coughing, in turn, can cause muscle soreness, fatigue, headaches, and a sore throat. Some people have even broken ribs from coughing.

Risk Factors/Causes

You may think of smoking immediately but there are many risk factors for chronic bronchitis that can work together.

Some risk factors include:

  • Smoking - Smoking is considered the cause of roughly 90 percent of cases.
  • Occupational exposure to fumes or dust - In this setting, it may be referred to as "industrial bronchitis."
  • Increasing age.
  • Poor immune function.
  • Repeated respiratory infections.


Your doctor will first perform a careful history and physical, with careful attention to any risk factors you may have. On physical examination, she will not only listen to your lungs but look for other signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as weight loss and even skin wrinkling. Tests may include:

  • A chest x-ray
  • A chest CT scan or bronchoscopy may be done more to exclude conditions such as lung cancer or tuberculosis
  • Sputum analysis
  • Sputum culture - To look for any signs of infection
  • Pulmonary function tests - Lung function tests including spirometry may help make the diagnosis as well as determine the severity
  • Oxygen level in your blood


Treatments for chronic bronchitis will depend on many factors including the severity of your symptoms and often include both medications and physical treatments such as pulmonary rehabilitation.

Some treatments used include:

Medications for Treating Chronic Bronchitis

Other Treatments for Chronic Bronchitis

  • Oxygen therapy - There are several benefits of oxygen therapy for COPD
  • Home remedies - Check out these 12 home remedies for coughing
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation 
  • Postural drainage
  • Avoidance of risk factors - A very important part of managing chronic bronchitis is the avoidance of substances which can exacerbate your symptoms or worsen inflammation. Your doctor will talk to you about smoking cessation if you smoke, avoidance of secondhand smoke, and safe exposure to vapors and fumes  
  • Clinical trials - Many clinical trials are in progress looking at ways to improve the symptoms of people with COPD as well as ways to prevent progression


Chronic bronchitis increases the risk of lung infections, and may also raise your risk of developing lung cancer.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Includes: Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. Updated 10/07/16.

National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Chronic Bronchitis. Updated 10/14/16.

Poole, P., Chong, J., and C. Cates. Mucolytic agents versus placebo for chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015 Jul 29;7:CD001287.

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