Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is the second of the two major components of COPD. Bronchitis occurs when the interior linings of the bronchial tubes (airways connecting the trachea or "windpipe" to the alveoli) become irritated and swell, reducing their effective diameter. As the bronchial tubes become inflamed, less air is able to pass from the trachea into the lungs and less waste gas is able to pass from the lungs out to the mouth. Bronchial tube inflammation triggers production of thicker-than-normal mucous which further clogs the airways.

Bronchitis is fairly common; many people experience temporary bouts of bronchitis. The chronic form of bronchitis associated with COPD occurs when bronchitis is present for at least three consecutive months at a time over the course of two consecutive years.

Causes

Bronchial tube irritation leading to chronic bronchitis has multiple causes. Some of the most common sources of irritation are listed below:

  • Smoking. The importance of stopping smoking can not be stressed enough. Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. Quitting smoking, even after you have been diagnosed with the disease is the best way to slow its progression. Smoking irritates the lungs and bronchi and further results in excessive production of thicker than normal mucus which backs up in the lungs and is hard to cough up. This excessive mucous is a prime breeding ground for irritation-causing bacteria, facilitating infection and re-infection.
  • Bacterial Infections. Bacterial infections, especially those that cause a lot of coughing, often irritate the bronchial tubes.
  • Air Pollution. Industrial air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and excessive dust have an irritant effect on the lungs in a manner very similar to tobacco smoke. People living or working in polluted environments (characterized by excessive exposure to tobacco smoke, smog, dust, industrial chemicals, etc.) should be especially wary and take all the necessary precautions to protect their respiratory systems.

Prevention

Chronic bronchitis is best prevented by avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke (or other forms of 'recreational' smoking (including marijuana), and other air pollutants. The first and most important risk factor is smoking. If you are a smoker, you should stop smoking immediately so as to best preserve your health. If you live or work with smokers, take steps to avoid their second hand smoke. Your risk of permanent respiratory damage rises with each additional year of smoking. Your decision and action to stop smoking drastically reduces the amount of irritants your lungs are exposed to, allowing your lungs to heal.

In addition to stopping smoking and limiting exposure to second hand smoke, you should try to avoid airborne pollutants such as dust, chemical and paint fumes. These substances have also been shown to increase your chances of chronic bronchitis.

Chest infections are often observed in the early stages of chronic bronchitis. Fortunately these infections can often be avoided by adopting healthy lifestyle habits. For example, regular exercise can help prevent the onset of chronic bronchitis. You should focus more on aerobic activities (swimming, jogging, playing soccer) which will help increase your lung capacity and strengthen your cardiovascular system. Making sure you eat a nutritious, properly balanced diet, while avoiding junk foods is also important for strengthening your immune system.

Treatment

Prevention of chronic bronchitis is of primary importance because there are no known cures for chronic bronchitis once it begins. Treatment of the disease, as described below, is intended to help patients manage their symptoms.

  • Vaccinations. The excessive amounts of mucous that back up in the lungs in chronic bronchitis provide an ideal environment in which infection-causing organisms can flourish. For this reason it is important that chronic bronchitis patient be properly vaccinated to reduce their risk of getting viral infections that will worsen their symptoms. Doctors frequently recommend that patients be immunized against pneumonia, and also receive annual influenza vaccinations.
  • Antibiotics. Your physician may prescribe antibiotics to help stave off bacterial infections of the respiratory system .
  • Bronchodilator Drugs. Bronchodilators are a specific type of prescription drug that relax and dilate the bronchial passages. Bronchodilators commonly come in inhalable (areosol) and oral (pill) formats.

While people diagnosed with chronic bronchitis can generally continue to live a normal lifestyle, they should make an immediate and serious effort to reduce their risk factors for the illness. With adequate risk factor modification (stopping smoking, etc.) most people can return to work very quickly as long as their working environment and conditions do not involve airborne pollutant or second hand smoke exposure or strenuous exercise. Your doctor is in the best position to know when it is safe for you to resume normal daily activities.