May 15, 2004 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Chronic Bronchitis

Am Fam Physician. 2004 May 15;69(10):2445-2446.

What is chronic bronchitis?

There are tubes in your lungs that air goes through. When the tubes become irritated, you have chronic bronchitis (say: brawn-kie-tiss). Thick mucus forms in these tubes (called bronchial tubes), and the mucus makes it hard to get air into your lungs. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include a cough that produces mucus, trouble breathing, and tightness in your chest.

What causes chronic bronchitis?

Cigarette smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. When tobacco smoke is breathed into the lungs, it irritates the bronchial tubes. People who have been exposed for a long time to things that irritate their lungs, like chemical fumes, dust, and other substances, also can get chronic bronchitis.

How does my doctor know I have chronic bronchitis?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • Are you coughing up mucus?

  • Are you having trouble breathing?

  • Does your chest feel tight?

  • Do you smoke cigarettes?

  • How many cigarettes do you smoke each day?

  • How many years have you been smoking?

  • Have you been breathing in other things that can irritate your lungs?

Your doctor may want you to have a test to find out if your lungs are damaged. In this test, you will breathe into a machine that measures the amount of air in your lungs. You also may need to have blood tests and a chest x-ray.

What can help my breathing and keep me from coughing?

If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is stop. Your doctor can help you do this. The more cigarette smoke you breathe, the more it damages your lungs. If you stop smoking, you will breathe better, and your lungs will start to heal. You also will reduce your chance of getting lung cancer.

Try not to use other things that can irritate your lungs, such as hairspray, spray deodorant, and spray paint. Try not to breathe dust or chemical fumes. Wear a mask over your nose and mouth if you are working with paint, paint remover, varnish, or anything else with strong fumes.

Can medicine treat chronic bronchitis?

Yes, your doctor may prescribe a medicine to treat your chronic bronchitis. The medicine opens the bronchial tubes and helps you breathe better. This medicine usually is breathed in rather than taken as a pill. A device called an inhaler is used to get the medicine into your lungs. It is important to use your inhaler the right way. Ask your doctor to show you how to use it correctly.

Your doctor also may want you to take pills for your bronchitis. One kind of medicine for chronic bronchitis that is taken as a pill is theophylline (say: thee-off-ah-leen).

If you do not get better with these medicines, your doctor may want you to take a kind of steroid. They can be taken as pills or breathed in with an inhaler.

Will antibiotics help me get better?

In general, antibiotics do not help chronic bronchitis. But, you may need antibiotics if you also get a lung infection. If you have a lung infection, you may cough up a lot of mucus. The mucus might be yellow or dark green. You also may have a fever. Your shortness of breath might get worse.

Because chronic bronchitis increases your risk of getting lung infections, be sure to get a flu shot every year. You also should get a shot to protect you against pneumonia.

What about oxygen therapy?

Because of the damage caused by chronic bronchitis, your lungs may not be able to get enough oxygen into your body. Your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy if your chronic bronchitis is very bad and medicine does not help you. If your doctor prescribes oxygen therapy, be sure to use it during the day and at night. Oxygen therapy can help you breathe better and live longer.

What else can I do to help my lungs?

Exercising regularly can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe. Try to exercise at least three times a week. Start by exercising slowly for just a little while. Try to exercise a little more and a little faster each day. You might start by walking slowly for 15 minutes three times a week. As you get in better shape, you can walk faster. After a while, you can walk for 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, then 30 minutes at a time.

Ask your doctor about an exercise program called pulmonary rehabilitation. This program often is given by a health care worker who specializes in lung treatments. Your doctor may refer you to a program at your local hospital.

A breathing method called “pursed-lip breathing” may help you. Take a deep breath, then breathe out slowly through your mouth while you hold your lips as if you are going to kiss someone. Pursed-lip breathing slows down the fast breathing that can happen with chronic bronchitis. It may help you feel better.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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