How can I control my chronic bronchitis?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

After years of smoking I’ve developed chronic bronchitis. Every morning I cough up lots of mucus. What can I do to control this cough?

DEAR READER:

Chronic bronchitis is a common form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD refers to a group of disorders that damage the lungs and make breathing increasingly difficult over time. Most cases of COPD are related to cigarette smoking.

In chronic bronchitis, the lungs’ airways become inflamed and their mucus-producing glands become enlarged. These enlarged glands produce too much mucus, triggering the cough you described.

Over time, you’re likely to produce more mucus, over longer stretches of the day and longer periods of the year. Your mucus will probably change from thin and clear to thick and discolored. You may also have wheezing, breathlessness and rapid breathing.

Unfortunately, no treatment can fully reverse or stop COPD. Instead, treatment aims to relieve symptoms, treat complications and minimize disability.

The first and most critical step is to quit smoking. If you continue to smoke, your symptoms will get worse. Quitting smoking is most effective during the early stages of COPD, but it is never too late to quit. Your symptoms can still improve.

Other treatments that may help include:

  • Environmental changes. Avoid exposure to dust or chemicals at work, outdoor air pollution and secondhand smoke. Also avoid other airborne toxins, such as deodorants, hair sprays and insecticides.
  • Medications. Bronchodilators open up the airways. Daily inhaled corticosteroids can reduce airway inflammation. For flare-ups, an oral corticosteroid called prednisone can help.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise will improve your quality of life, but does not directly improve lung function. That’s because regular exercise encourages your tissues to use the limited amounts of oxygen they receive more efficiently.
  • Fluids. Drinking enough fluids can help keep mucus watery and easy to drain.
  • Supplemental oxygen. This will help get enough oxygen into your blood.

Other things you can do to minimize your symptoms:

  • Avoid outdoor activities when air pollution levels are high.
  • Avoid contact with anyone with an upper respiratory tract infection. Even a mild cold can trigger a flare-up of bronchitis symptoms.
  • Wash your hands frequently to prevent illness.
  • Get vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia. Because your lungs are weakened by COPD, they are more severely affected by these infections if you get them.

Above all, if you’re still smoking, do everything you can to quit. You can do it. Of course, it’s not easy. But it can be done. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more former smokers alive today in the United States than there are current smokers.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter