Chronic Bronchitis vs Emphysema: What's the Difference?

Learn What Sets the Two Main Types of COPD Apart from Each Other

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Many people who have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) wonder: chronic bronchitis vs emphysema - what's the difference?

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two main subtypes of COPD. Sometimes, it's difficult to understand the differences between the two - especially because they often coexist in the same person - but both cause difficulty breathing and other lung-related symptoms.

This article will help you understand the difference between chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic Bronchitis vs Emphysema

A main difference between chronic bronchitis and emphysema is that:

  • Chronic bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes, or airways. The hallmark of chronic bronchitis is a long-term cough with mucus, or sputum. 
  • Emphysema affects the alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs. The hallmark of emphysema is shortness of breath.

Neither chronic bronchitis nor emphysema have a cure. However, both can be managed with oxygen therapy, medications and other treatments. The best way to improve COPD symptoms is to quit smoking.

What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD that causes inflammation, or irritation, in the bronchioles of the lungs. The bronchioles connect the trachea, or windpipe, to the lungs.

This irritation causes an increased amount of heavy mucus in the lungs that, over time, interferes with breathing.

The body responds to this mucus by producing a cough in an attempt to clear the airways.

Because the mucus is so abundant and thick, it's often difficult for a person with chronic bronchitis to expel it. (Expelled mucus in COPD is called sputum, or phlegm.)

Additionally, large amounts of thick mucus make the lungs a perfect habitat for bacteria to thrive.

For this reason, bacterial lung infections among people who have chronic bronchitis are common and frequent.

In order for a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis to be made, you need to have a productive, long-term cough that lasts three months out of the year for two consecutive years. This differentiates it from acute bronchitis.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • having a cough on most days for at least three months, for two years in a row
  • coughing or spitting up clear or white mucus
  • feeling very tired
  • feeling short of breath
  • chest discomfort or tightness

Chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smokingsecondhand smoke and air pollution.

Learn more about chronic bronchitis signs and symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

What Is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a type of COPD that causes a destruction of the walls of the alveoli, the tiny air spaces in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged during the breathing process. The alveoli provide oxygen to the bloodstream.

 When they are destroyed, it makes it difficult for the ​person with emphysema to breathe, which is one of the hallmark symptoms of emphysema.

The symptoms of emphysema include:

  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing feeling of not being able to get enough airl
  • long-term cough 
  • wheezing
  • long-term mucus production
  • ongoing fatigue

Emphysema is primarily caused by smoking. Unfortunately, once it's diagnosed, it cannot be cured.

Read more about emphysema, including signs and symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

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