Chronic bronchitis belongs to a larger family of medical conditions known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The term COPD is given to any condition that causes difficulty in breathing as a result of constant blocking of the airways.
Bronchitis is identified by a cough, usually with some sputum production.The cough happens because the air tubes are permanently inflamed and secrete mucus. When cough and sputum have been present for more than 3 months in each of 2 consecutive years, the condition is called chronic bronchitis. In North America, about 1 person in 20 suffers from chronic bronchitis.
Smoking for many years causes about 90% of chronic bronchitis cases, and the great majority of people with chronic bronchitis are over 45 years of age. The risk of chronic bronchitis is also increased in workers employed in certain occupations such as coal mining, welding, asbestos work, or grain handling.
When breathing becomes more difficult for a person with chronic bronchitis, they may be experiencing an acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis (AECB). During an acute exacerbation, breathing becomes more difficult because of further narrowing of the airways and secretion of large amounts of mucus that is often thicker than usual.
The further narrowing of airways in people with chronic bronchitis that results in AECB can be caused by allergens (e.g., pollens, wood or cigarette smoke, pollution), toxins (a variety of different chemicals), or acute viral or bacterial infections.
Bacterial infections are usually associated with mucus that turns a yellow or greenish colour and is typically much thicker than usual. Coloured mucus does not necessarily mean the person has a bacterial infection, however.
When a person has severe chronic lung disease from smoking, it may take something as minor as a chest cold to make their breathing so severe that they must be hospitalized.
AECB is associated with increased frequency and severity of coughing, and it is often accompanied by worsened chest congestion and discomfort. Increasing shortness of breath is also typical, and wheezing may be present as well.
People suffering from an acute exacerbation caused by infection may feel weak and have fever and chills. Doctors may recommend a chest X-ray to ensure that pneumonia is not the cause for these symptoms. Blood in the sputum may also indicate other medical conditions and should be reported to your physician promptly.