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Chronic Bronchitis

Overview

Affecting millions of Americans each year, chronic bronchitis is a common type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the air passages in the lungs — the bronchi — are repeatedly inflamed, leading to scarring of the bronchi walls. As a result, excessive amounts of sticky mucus are produced and fill the bronchial tubes, which become thickened, impeding normal airflow through the lungs.

Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for developing chronic bronchitis. Over 90 percent of patients with chronic bronchitis have a smoking history, although only 15 percent of all cigarette smokers are ultimately diagnosed with some type of COPD, such as chronic bronchitis.

Our Aaproach to chronic bronchitis

UCSF offers comprehensive evaluations and care for all types of COPD. When treating chronic bronchitis, we aim to ease symptoms, slow progression of the disease and prevent complications.

Treatment options include medications, supplemental oxygen and, for some patients, surgery to remove small portions of damaged lung. UCSF also offers pulmonary rehabilitation, a multifaceted program that provides nutrition and exercise counseling, help in quitting smoking and education on how to stay as healthy as possible.

In addition to caring for patients, we lead research to improve the understanding and treatment of COPD. Interested patients may have the option to receive experimental treatments by participating in a clinical trial.

Awards & recognition

  • Among the top hospitals in the nation

  • Best in Northern California and No. 4 in the nation for pulmonology & lung surgery

  • Rated high-performing hospital for COPD

Signs & symptoms

People with chronic bronchitis develop a persistent mucus-producing cough that is present most days of the month, or for three months of the year for two successive years. Other symptoms include frequent clearing of the throat and shortness of breath.

Diagnosis

In making a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis, your doctor will begin by conducting a thorough physical examination, recording your medical history and asking about any symptoms you are experiencing.

The following tests may then be conducted to make a definite diagnosis:

  • Pulmonary function testing (PFT). This test involves a series of breathing maneuvers that measure the airflow and volume of air in your lungs. This allows your doctor to objectively assess the function of your lungs.
  • High resolution computed tomography (HRCT). This is a special type of CT scan that provides your doctor with high-resolution images of your lungs. Having a HRCT is no different than having a regular CT scan; they both are performed on an open-air table and take only a few minutes.
  • Chest X-ray. Chest X-rays can help confirm a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis and rule out other lung conditions.
  • Sputum examination. Analysis of cells in your sputum can help determine the cause of some lung problems.

Treatments

The goal of therapy for chronic bronchitis is to relieve symptoms, prevent complications and slow the progression of the disease. Quitting smoking is also essential for patients with chronic bronchitis, since continuing to use tobacco will only further damage the lungs. Our Tobacco Education Center offers classes as well as individual consultations with doctors trained in treating tobacco addiction. We help smokers maximize the likelihood of success in their efforts to quit.

Treatment may include:

  • Bronchodilator medications. Inhaled as aerosol sprays or taken orally, bronchodilator medications may help to relieve symptoms of chronic bronchitis by relaxing and opening the air passages in the lungs.
  • Steroids. Inhaled as an aerosol spray, steroids can help relieve symptoms of chronic bronchitis. Over time, however, inhaled steroids can cause side effects, such as weakened bones, high blood pressure, diabetes and cataracts. It is important to discuss these side effects with your doctor before using steroids.
  • Antibiotics. Antibiotics may be used to help fight respiratory infections common in people with chronic bronchitis.
  • Vaccines. Patients with chronic bronchitis should receive a flu shot annually and pneumonia shot every five to seven years to prevent infections.
  • Oxygen therapy. As a patient's disease progresses, they may find it increasingly difficult to breathe on their own and may require supplemental oxygen. Oxygen comes in various forms and may be delivered with different devices, including those you can use at home.
  • Surgery. Lung volume reduction surgery, during which small wedges of damaged lung tissue are removed, may be recommended for some patients with chronic bronchitis.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. An important part of chronic bronchitis treatment is pulmonary rehabilitation, which includes education, nutrition counseling, learning special breathing techniques, help with quitting smoking and starting an exercise regimen. Because people with chronic bronchitis are often physically limited, they may avoid any kind of physical activity. However, regular physical activity can actually improve a patient's health and wellbeing.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

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