Bronchitis is a condition characterized by the inflammation of mucous membranes that line airway passages in the lungs. The mucous membranes swell and grow thicker, narrowing and blocking the airway, making it difficult to breathe. Bronchitis lasting more than 3 months for two consecutive years is termed chronic.
Smoking is the leading cause of chronic bronchitis. Other causes include a dusty work environment, toxic gases, and air pollution. Smoking and other irritants damage the cilia (hair-like structures) that line the inside of your air passages and help in clearing debris, mucous, and irritants.
Chronic bronchitis can cause cough, chest pain, and tightness, wheezing, and fatigue. Symptoms may be common to other lung conditions such as asthma, pneumonia or lung cancer. It is important to get yourself evaluated by a doctor if you have:
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Cough that lasts for more than 4 weeks
- Fever greater than 101° F
- Blood in your mucus
When you present to the clinic with these symptoms, your doctor will review your history and the duration of your symptoms. A physical examination is performed and your chest is examined with a stethoscope. A chest X-ray and lung function tests are ordered to measure the lung’s functioning.
If you are a smoker, your doctor will first advise you to stop smoking. Other lifestyle changes may be suggested to avoid lung irritation and infections. During flares of chronic bronchitis, you are advised to get plenty of rest and increase your fluid intake. Your doctor may prescribe medications such as bronchodilators or steroids for symptom relief. Annual vaccinations against pneumonia and flu are recommended. Oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation may benefit some individuals with chronic bronchitis.