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Chronic bronchitis

Alternative names

Bronchitis - chronic


Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, the main air passages in the lungs, which persists for a long period or repeatedly recurs.

The condition is characterized by excessive bronchial mucus and a productive cough that produces sputum for three months or more in at least two consecutive years, without any other disease that could account for this symptom.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Cigarette smoking (and exposure to secondhand smoke) is the chief cause of this disease. Air pollution, infection, and allergies are exacerbating factors. The longer and heavier the smoking or contact with secondhand smoke is, the more severe the bronchitis tends to be.

Chronic bronchitis is one form of chronic obstructive pulmonary (lung) disease . Chronic bronchitis, emphysema , and asthma as a group are a leading cause of death in the U.S.


  • Cough that produces mucus (sputum), which may be blood streaked
  • Shortness of breath aggravated by exertion or mild activity
  • Frequent respiratory infections that worsen symptoms
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Ankle, feet, and leg swelling that affects both sides
  • Headaches

Signs and tests

  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Arterial blood gas
  • Chest X-ray
  • Pulse oximetry (oxygen saturation testing)
  • Complete blood count
  • Exercise testing
  • Chest CAT scan


There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing complications. It is crucial to quit smoking to prevent worsening of chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory irritants should be avoided.

Inhaled medications that dilate the airways may help reduce symptoms, such as wheezing. Antibiotics may be prescribed for infections as needed. Corticosteroids may occasionally be used during flare-ups of wheezing or in people with severe bronchitis not responding to other treatments.

Physical exercise programs, breathing exercises, and patient education programs all contribute to the treatment plan. Oxygen therapy may be needed in severe cases. In very severe cases, lung transplantation may be recommended.

Support Groups

For organizations that provide support and additional information, see lung disease resources .

Expectations (prognosis)

Mild or moderate cases of chronic bronchitis can often be controlled well with routine medications and pulmonary rehabilitation programs. Advanced bronchitis is more difficult to treat and may require the use of oxygen or consideration of lung transplantation.

Early recognition, early treatment, and smoking cessation significantly improve the odds of a good outcome.


  • Acute bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cor pulmonale
  • Emphysema
  • Respiratory failure
  • Cardiac arrhythmia

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if respiratory infection or unexplained symptoms develop, or you are short of breath, wheezing, or coughing up blood .


Early recognition and treatment may prevent the progression of the disease in people who also stop smoking.

Update Date: 11/15/2002

David A. Kaufman, M.D., Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT