Chronic Bronchitis: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
November 16, 2021

If you have ever struggled with a coughing fit that has kept you up all night or experienced prolonged daily cough, you know just how frustrating it can be.

Either of these things could be a sign of chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes resulting in a cough that often brings up mucus from the lungs.

A cough, which is the main symptom of chronic bronchitis, is your body’s way of expelling an irritant in your throat or airways. 

Unfortunately, bronchitis can last several months and if left untreated; when it’s related to frequent tobacco use, it may last even longer.

Read on to learn more about symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic bronchitis, as well as potential risks and complications and when you should see a doctor. 

Chronic Bronchitis Basics

Chronic bronchitis is considered a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a disease that includes inflammation or irritation of the bronchial tubes and produces a chronic build-up of mucus in the lungs.

This manifests as a stubborn cough that can worsen over time and lead to serious outcomes such as pneumonia, acute flare-ups, and low blood oxygen levels.

Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis.

Those who struggle with asthma and allergies are also at a higher risk. 

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Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis 

If you think you have bronchitis, you may exhibit any of the following symptoms:

Causes of Chronic Bronchitis

Generally speaking, there are two types of bronchitis that you can be diagnosed with: acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis. 

Acute bronchitis usually develops from a cold or viral respiratory infection, but also can be related to or aggravated by smoking.

You may get acute bronchitis from a virus, or less commonly, a bacterial infection.

Symptoms tend to flare up about 3-4 days after infection, and last for three weeks.

You should see an improvement around the 10-14 day mark, and many episodes go away without antibiotics.  

If your symptoms persist beyond three weeks and last up to three months out of the year for at least two consecutive years, then you may be suffering from chronic bronchitis.

Unfortunately, this is not curable.

While it may initially be triggered by a respiratory infection or illness, smoking is usually the main cause.

Air pollution or exposure to other irritants in the air can also play a part.

Chronic bronchitis can cause serious airflow obstruction resulting in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Diagnosing Chronic Bronchitis

If your doctor or provider suspects you have chronic bronchitis, they will initially do a physical examination and check your medical history.

They will want to know how long you have had a cough and whether you produce mucus when you cough.

In some circumstances, they may want to order a CT scan, chest X-ray, or pulmonary function tests, as well as lab work to rule out other conditions.

No specific testing is needed to diagnose chronic bronchitis, and most diagnoses are made based on your medical history and symptoms.

CT Scan

A CT scan stands for “computed tomography” and is a type of x-ray imaging.

For this, you will lie on a table as the table slowly passes through a large x-ray machine to make cross-sectional images of your body.

For some CT scans, you may receive an intravenous contrast dye, which helps display parts of your body more clearly in the image. 

Chest X-Ray

A chest x-ray can help your doctor determine if you have fluid in or around your lungs, signs of pneumonia, or another condition.

They can be used to help diagnose chronic bronchitis and other conditions such as heart problems, pneumonia, cancer, emphysema, or broken ribs.

Pulmonary function tests

Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) are noninvasive tests that determine the severity of pulmonary impairment.

They measure your lung volume, capacity, rates of flow, and gas exchange.

This information can help your health care provider diagnose and decide the treatment of certain lung disorders.

Pulse oximetry

This test is used to measure the oxygen level in your blood.

It determines how well the blood is circulating in your system to parts that are furthest from your heart.

Arterial blood gas

An arterial blood gas test (ABG) measures the amount of arterial gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide).

This test involves a small amount of blood being drawn from an artery using a syringe and thin needle which is then examined to see how well your lungs move oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide from the blood.

This test is rarely needed unless you are critically ill with severe difficulty breathing.

Treating Chronic Bronchitis

If you are suffering from chronic bronchitis, you may be prescribed the following:

Antibiotics: Antibiotics can help improve symptoms of a cough, breathlessness, and mucus production caused by bacterial lung infections. Antibiotics do not treat chronic bronchitis or viral infections, so they will not be prescribed in most situations of chronic bronchitis. They may be used when you are having an acute flare-up and your doctor suspects a bacteria is the cause based on your symptoms.

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids: Commonly referred to as steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs reduce swelling and the amount of mucus in your lungs. 

Bronchodilators: These are usually taken through an inhaler and can help relax the muscles around the airways and allow you to breathe more easily. 

Risks and Complications of Chronic Bronchitis

Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic bronchitis, and those who have been diagnosed run a higher risk of developing other lung conditions and infections.

These include:

  • Emphysema
  • Pneumothorax (the collection of air or gas in a lung causing the lung to collapse)
  • Respiratory failure
  • Enlarged or weakened right heart ventricle 
  • Death 

Preventing Chronic Bronchitis

The best way to prevent chronic bronchitis is to quit smoking if you are a smoker.

It’s also advised that you avoid secondhand smoke and areas with high air pollution or other irritants (such as chemical fumes and dust) whenever possible.

Try to get regular exercise and eat a balanced diet, as well, to strengthen your lung function.

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When to See a Doctor

If you have been experiencing bouts of acute bronchitis that have not gone away on their own, then this may be the beginning of chronic bronchitis.

If you develop a wheezing cough or a cough that doesn’t go away within three to four weeks, then you should see a health care provider to figure out the cause and determine a treatment plan.

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

Will antibiotics work on chronic bronchitis?
No, antibiotics cannot help chronic bronchitis, but they can help if you have an acute lung infection due to bacteria.
Is chronic bronchitis another name for COPD?
Chronic bronchitis is one form of COPD. The other form is emphysema which causes shortness of breath, a dry cough, and wheezing. In some cases, you may have chronic bronchitis but not have a diagnosis of COPD.
Can chronic bronchitis be cured?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic bronchitis, but certain lifestyle changes can improve your symptoms. If you smoke, it is advised that you quit as soon as possible, engage in physical activity when you can, and eat a balanced diet.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.