Chronic Bronchitis
Photo of man with chronic bronchitis


Chronic bronchitis (pronounced Bron-KI-tis) is an inflammatory condition of the airways. Your airway consists of tubes that connect your windpipe with your lungs. When the airway becomes inflamed by pollution, fumes, cigarette smoke, or other irritants, it swells in an effort to close itself and protect the lungs from the irritant. As a result, less air is able to flow to and from the lungs.

The lungs work to protect themselves too. While your airways are tightening to fend off the irritants, the lungs produce mucus or sputum to clear away the irritation. This causes you to cough and bring up some of the mucus. It can also make breathing very labored and uncomfortable.

Chronic bronchitis, like emphysema, is classified as one of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, also known as COPD, and there are two types – acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis may occur after you have had a viral respiratory infection or cold, and it can be treated with antibiotics, but chronic bronchitis is far more serious, and more common, than you may think:

  • 3 in every 100 Americans suffer from chronic bronchitis
    (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2005)

  • 3,500 Americans die from chronic bronchitis every year

  • From 1970 to 2002, COPD deaths have risen 102 percent
    (The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005)

The word “chronic” means repetitive or lasting a long time. If you have chronic bronchitis, you will have suffered with a mucus producing cough most days for at least three months a year for two successive years. It’s a long-term disease, not an infection, and there is no cure.

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The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking, and the persistent cough is sometimes dismissed as being a “smoker’s cough”. This assumption can be dangerous, because the earlier chronic bronchitis is detected and treated, the greater the chance for improvement. If you have a persistent cough, see your doctor.

Cigarette smoking is not the only cause of chronic bronchitis. In nonsmokers, causes of the disease include:

  • Second-hand smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Industrial dust (Frequently associated with certain occupations like coal mining)
  • Chemical fumes
  • Chronic asthma
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Chronic lung infections

People over age 45 are more likely to have chronic bronchitis, and more women get bronchitis than men.

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  • Persistent cough that produces mucus
    In the early stages of the disease, you may cough and produce thick mucus in the morning, and as the disease progresses, clearing the mucus will become more difficult.

  • Trouble breathing

  • Tightness around chest area

  • Wheezing

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent respiratory infections

  • Blue skin or lips
    In severe cases, your skin may look slightly blue because of a lack of oxygen.

  • Swollen ankles, legs, feet
    Your tissues may swell because the lack of oxygen will cause fluid to accumulate in the heart.

  • Condition worsens when you lay down. Most sufferers will sleep sitting up.

If you experience any of the above symptoms, see your health care professional immediately for an accurate diagnosis and treatment to relieve your symptoms.

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