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• In 8 out 10 cases, chronic bronchitis is caused by smoking • COPD accounts for 7% of sick days • COPD exceeds asthma for the NHS annual workload • COPD is the 5th biggest killer in the UK and worldwide
The airways of the lungs (the bronchi) lead to smaller airways known as bronchioles. Mucus is produced in the bronchi to prevent dust and airborne particles irritating the lungs. When the bronchi becomes infected and thus inflamed and irritated, excess mucus is produced which the body attempts to remove by coughing.
An infection of the bronchi is either viral or bacterial but bronchitis is commonly caused by the same viruses as the common cold or flu. Viruses spread through direct contact with an infected person or through airborne particles from coughs and sneezes.
Known irritants to bronchitis include tobacco smoke, pollution or chemicals. The main cause of chronic bronchitis is from smoking either directly or through passive smoking. Certain materials can cause bronchitis and the condition can be an occupational hazard to anyone working with ammonia, acids, chlorine, grains and textiles.
The common symptom of bronchitis is a persistent and severe hacking cough as the body attempts to shift the excess mucus that has built up in the lungs. This mucus will typically be thick and yellow-grey in colour. The cough can last for many weeks after other symptoms have disappeared causing aching muscles in the chest and stomach.
Chronic bronchitis, or a cough that is persistent and lasting for three months or more, is referred to as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and typically affects smokers without them realising they have a serious condition.
Other symptoms of bronchitis include:
• Tightness in the chest • Short of breath • Wheezes • Sore throat • Fever • Chills • Headaches • Blocked sinuses • General aches and pains
Most symptoms of bronchitis are rarely severe and are more of an unpleasant irritation that passes when the virus leaves the body. However, bronchitis symptoms can be similar to pneumonia so seek medical opinion if the symptoms change to, or include:
• a severe cough lasting more than three weeks • a constant high temperature for three days or more • mucus that contains blood • rapid breaths • chest pains • drowsiness • confusion • recurring bouts of bronchitis • an underlying condition such as heart problems, asthma, emphysema
Unless your symptoms are severe there's usually little need to visit your GP but a visit is recommended to rule out any serious underlying causes.
Your GP will ask about the symptoms you have and listen to your lungs using a stethoscope. Should pneumonia be suspected, your GP will send you for a chest X-ray or take a sample of mucus for testing in a laboratory.
Should a chronic condition such as emphysema or asthma be suspected, a device called a spirometer can be used to test the volume of air in your lungs. Your GP may also suggest a pulmonary function test.