Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are together called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. This is a chronic condition where not enough air enters or leaves the lungs.
In chronic bronchitis, the airways (or bronchi) that connect the windpipe and the lungs become inflamed and swollen. The airways become narrow and are clogged up with thick mucus, called phlegm. Chronic bronchitis may be found together with emphysema, in which destructive changes of the air sacs in the lungs cause them to become larger, reducing the surface area where oxygen exchange takes place. Both diseases make it difficult to breathe.
It's a very common condition, especially among people who smoke. More than 700,000 Canadians have COPD. In the United States, about 12 million are affected with this condition. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in both Canada and the United States. More women than men have COPD, except in the age category above 75.
Smoking is the main cause of COPD. It causes the airways to produce excess mucus that lines the walls of the airways, making the air passages very narrow. This makes it easier to get a bronchial infection. An infection can cause even more damage to the airways by causing more mucus production.
Less common causes of COPD include a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, air pollution, exposure to occupational dusts and chemicals, and frequent lower respiratory infections during childhood.
People with chronic bronchitis may cough up phlegm almost every day.
It is common for someone with chronic bronchitis to persistently cough and wheeze when breathing. It is also common to feel short of breath. Low oxygen in the blood due to the decreased ability to diffuse oxygen across the air sacs may cause the lips or fingernails to become bluish in colour.
COPD can lead to heart failure, as the heart has to work harder to pump blood into the lungs. When the heart fails to pump blood properly, it collects in the blood vessels of the legs and ankles and causes them to swell - this is called edema.
Sometimes you may become housebound because of breathing difficulties, even when doing simple tasks such as getting dressed or washing.
If you have COPD, it is likely that you may catch one or two infections every winter. You may also occasionally cough up blood. If this happens, it may be a sign of a more serious problem and it's important to see your doctor.