Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a persistent inflammation of the bronchial tubes (the airways leading from the trachea to the lungs). A form of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis causes excessive mucus secretions of mucus. The inflammation and mucus secretion of chronic bronchitis is usually accompanied by tissue swelling, which can narrow or obstruct the bronchial tubes. Chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smoke and air pollution, but exacerbation of chronic bronchitis is often brought on by allergies and infection.

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. However, different medications are available to help slow the progression of chronic bronchitis. These treatments may reverse the part of obstruction which is reversible, decrease inflammation in the airways, and/or treat the infection.

Learn more about the symptoms of chronic bronchitis: 


Learn About Types of Bronchiectasis Treatment
BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

One of the hallmark symptoms of chronic bronchitis, as well as one of the criteria used to diagnose the condition, is a productive cough. This cough, in order to be diagnostic of chronic bronchitis, must be present for at least 3 months of the year for 2 consecutive years. A cough is actually a defense mechanism developed by the body in an attempt to clear the airways of mucus or other types of irritants.

In the context of chronic bronchitis, a long-term cough that produces mucus may first be noticed during the winter months and is often one of the earliest signs of chronic bronchitis. A cough may be worsened by cold weather, dampness, and lung irritants such as cigarette smoke. 



Bronchus with excess mucus, illustration

Substances like cigarette smoke and air pollution irritate the airways in people with chronic bronchitis. This results in inflammation and an overproduction of mucus. When the airways are regularly exposed to irritating substances, mucus-secreting glands and cells in the lungs increase in number, cilia function is reduced and more mucus is produced. This causes the airways to become narrow and clogged.



Woman with towel resting at gym
Hero Images / Getty Images

For people with chronic bronchitis, dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is caused by lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. It is one of the most common symptoms of chronic bronchitis and is often described as air hunger or the sensation of not getting enough air while breathing. For people with chronic bronchitis, shortness of breath is often worsened by activity or exercise. 


Frequent Respiratory Infections

Chest x-ray of a 57 year old female patient with signs of pneumonia in the Right Lower Lobe (RLL) of her lung Front View
Cultura Science/PhotoStock-Israel / Getty Images

In chronic bronchitis, the bronchi (airways) become damaged and thickened, which alters the protective action of the bacteria-fighting cells within the lungs. The combination of increased mucus and damage to the bronchi makes a patient with chronic bronchitis more susceptible to lung infections such as pneumonia.


Older woman coughing into her hand
Rowan Allan / Getty Images

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made during breathing and is caused by a narrowing, or blockage, of the airways. Wheezing is often heard during exhalation, but can also occur during inhalation.


Swelling and Weight Gain

Overweight woman on bathroom scales
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Swelling (especially of the lower extremities) and weight gain may accompany chronic bronchitis. It often occurs as a side effect of some of the medications used to treat the disease.

Still, have questions about chronic bronchitis symptoms? Read more about chronic bronchitis, including causes, treatment, and prevention:


  • COPD Fact Sheet. American Lung Association.
  • Smeltzer, Suzanne C. & Bare, Brenda, G. (1996). Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing (8th Edition). Pennsylvania, PA: Lippincott-Raven Publishers.