What Is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is when damaged lungs make more mucus than they should. If you cough up mucus and feel short of breath for at least three months each year, two or more years in a row, without another diagnosis to explain the cough, you may have chronic bronchitis.

Healthy lungs

This is what happens when your lungs are healthy:

  • Inside the lungs are branching airways of stretchy tissue. Each airway is wrapped with bands of muscle that help keep it open. Air travels in and out of the lungs through these airways.

  • The cells in the lining of the airways produce a sticky fluid called mucus. This traps dust, smoke, and other particles in the air you breathe and helps protect the lungs.

  • Tiny hairs, called cilia, then sweep the mucus up the airways to the throat, where it is swallowed or coughed up, again to protect the lungs.

Cross section of bronchiole showing open airway.   Cells with cilia and mucus on top. Arrows show mucus being swept along.

When you have chronic bronchitis

This is what happens when you have chronic bronchitis:

  • Cells in the airways make more mucus than normal. The mucus builds up, narrowing the airways. This means less air travels into and out of the lungs.

  • The lining of the airways may also become inflamed (swollen). And, the muscle surrounding the airways may constrict (tighten). These problems cause the airways to narrow even more.

  • The cilia may also be damaged. This means they can’t sweep mucus and particles away. This damage makes the problems described above even worse.

Cross section of bronchiole showing airway mostly blocked by mucus, inflammation, and muscle constriction.   Cells with damaged cilia showing mucus buildup and particles in mucus.



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