Chronic Bronchitis

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: George Schiffman, MD, FCCP
    George Schiffman, MD, FCCP

    George Schiffman, MD, FCCP

    Dr. Schiffman received his B.S. degree with High Honors in biology from Hobart College in 1976. He then moved to Chicago where he studied biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. He attended Rush Medical College where he received his M.D. degree in 1982 and was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. He completed his Internal Medicine internship and residency at the University of California, Irvine.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideBronchitis Symptoms and Treatments

Bronchitis Symptoms and Treatments

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis?

The major signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis are:

  • Cough and sputum production are the most common symptoms. They usually last for at least 3 months and occur daily. The intensity of coughing and the amount and frequency of sputum production vary from patient to patient. Sputum may be clear, yellowish, greenish, or occasionally, blood-tinged. Since cigarette smoke is the most common cause for chronic bronchitis, it should not be surprising that the most common presentation is so called smoker's cough. This is characterized by a cough that tends to be worse upon arising and is often productive of discolored mucus in the early part of the day. As the day progresses, less mucus is produced.
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) gradually increases with the severity of the disease. Usually, people with chronic bronchitis get short of breath with activity and begin coughing; dyspnea at rest usually signals that COPD or emphysema has developed.
  • Wheezing (a coarse whistling sound produced when airways are partially obstructed) often occurs.

Other signs and symptoms that may accompany chronic bronchitis include

Exacerbation of chronic bronchitis occurs when symptoms worsen or become more frequent. These exacerbations often require antibiotics, and may need steroid medication and an increase in respiratory inhaled medications. Signs and symptoms of exacerbation of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Severe coughing that causes chest discomfort or chest pain.
  • Cyanosis (bluish/grayish skin coloration) may develop in people with advanced COPD.
  • Fever may indicate a secondary viral or bacterial lung infection. 

When should an person seek medical care for chronic bronchitis?

  • Ideally, a person should seek medical care before chronic bronchitis develops. It is reasonable for people to seek care for tobacco addiction and the occasional chronic cough (occurring less than daily for 3 months) and to get medical help to potentially avoid developing chronic bronchitis. However, any daily cough that lasts for at least 3 months in a person should be investigated by a physician.
  • If a person develops chronic (3 months or longer) cough, difficulty breathing, sputum production, and other symptoms, it may represent the first bout of chronic bronchitis. Thus, seeking medical care may help slow or prevent the usual progression of the disease.

If a person with diagnosed chronic bronchitis (or COPD or emphysema) develops severe problems with breathing, cyanosis or fever, they should seek emergency medical care immediately.

How is chronic bronchitis diagnosed?

Health care professionals diagnose chronic bronchitis based on a person's medical history, physical exam, and diagnostic tests. A history of a daily productive (sputum production) cough that lasts at least 3 months, especially if has occurred two years in a row, fits the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of chronic bronchitis. The physical examination often allows  health care professionals to hear wheezes and a prolongation of the exhalation of breathing, which are signs of airflow obstruction.

A chest X-ray is often performed to help rule out other lung problems (for example, pneumonia, bronchial obstructions). Additional tests such as a complete blood count (CBC), arterial blood gas measurements, CT scan of the chest, and pulmonary function tests are often done to characterize the structure and function of the lungs and to help exclude other conditions (for example, lung cancer, tuberculosis, lung infections). Often a pulmonologist (a physician with specialized training in the management of lung diseases) can help diagnose and treat chronic bronchitis.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/11/2016

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