6 Ways to Treat Chronic Bronchitis

Practices, pills, and physio that help manage symptoms

Chronic bronchitis is a complication of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is clinically defined as a cough which produces sputum every day for three months in a row while having occurred for at least two years in a row.

COPD is now the third leading cause of deaths in the U.S. Other forms include emphysema and bronchiectasis. While smoke is the most common cause of COPD, exposure to secondhand smoke, pollution, or other air irritants may also cause this condition.

Chronic bronchitis is different from acute bronchitis, the latter of which is a temporary condition caused by a viral infection or environmental irritants. Chronic bronchitis is, by contrast, a permanent disorder caused by irreversible lung damage.

If you are diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, your doctor with typically prescribes some or all of the following treatment options:


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Quitting smoking is the most important, yet most commonly overlooked, part of treating chronic bronchitis.

Smoking causes something called bronchoconstriction which paralyzes the tiny, protective hairs (called cilia) that line the airways. At the same time, the inflammation caused by cigarettes triggers the overproduction of mucus. Because cilia are important in removing substances from the lungs, the damage caused by smoking results in an accumulation of mucus and the restriction of air to the lungs.

Smokers are also more susceptible to lung infections, which are common in people with COPD.

Even if you are in the later stages of COPD, it's never too late to quit. Not only does stopping help slow disease progression, the health benefits only increase as time goes by. In many cases, symptoms of dyspnea (shortness of breath) will lessen within six to nine months of stopping.

There are a number of different types of smoking cessation aids available today, many of which are covered by insurance. 



A Metered-Dose Inhaler.
A Metered-Dose Inhaler. Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Bronchodilators help remove bronchial secretions while relieving bronchospasm and reducing airway obstruction. By doing so, more oxygen is distributed to the lungs and breathing is improved.

Rescue inhalers, containing short-acting bronchodilators like Proventil (albuterol), can help people with chronic bronchitis manage persistent or worsening symptoms of the disease. These medications are part of the standard of care for all stages of COPD.

Albuterol is a beta-agonist-class drug which helps the muscles around your airways relax. Unlike long-acting inhalers, rescue inhalers are used to treat sudden episodes of shortness of breath related to bronchospasm.



Man taking a white pill with a glass of water
Photo: Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

When a person does not respond to more conservative treatment, glucocorticoids (a class of steroids) may be prescribed as part of the treatment plan. Glucocorticoids are known to have many benefits in the treating the condition but are also associated with many risks, as well.

While treatment with glucocorticoids is still considered controversial, the  Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) recommends their use in the inhaled form once a person reached Stage III COPD and is suffering from frequent exacerbations.

Oral glucocorticoids may be used to treat COPD when symptoms rapidly get worse. Inhaled steroids are typically used to treat stable symptoms or when symptoms are slowly getting worse. 



woman taking white pill out of pill organizer container
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Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) inhibitors are a class of drug that treats inflammation associated with COPD. A once-daily oral medication, PDE4 inhibitors help reduce COPD exacerbation with typically minimal side effects.

The drugs work by reducing airway inflammation in people who are resistant to standard therapies. By doing so, less mucus is produced, resulting in less accumulation and obstruction of air passages.

Daliresp (roflumilast) is the only PDE4 inhibitor currently approved in the United States. The main side effects of PDE4 inhibitors include diarrhea, nausea, and headaches.



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Chest physiotherapy, also referred to as chest percussion, is a technique which involves clapping on the chest and/or back to help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up. It is often used with postural drainage and can be performed using cupped hands or an airway clearance device.

Postural drainage, by contrast, is a technique that uses gravity to assist with the removal of mucus from the airways. Both chest physiotherapy and postural drainage work best after a bronchodilator treatment.



Acapella Flutter Vibratory PEP Therapy. Image courtesy Smiths Medical (UK)

Airway clearance devices are used in conjunction with chest therapy and postural drainage to better ensure mucus clearance from the lungs. The devices have been shown to greatly improve results compared to physiotherapy and drainage alone. All in all, they are relatively affordable and easy to use.

Options include: