How Are COPD & Bronchitis Related?

Maria Tesoro-Morioka

When it’s a challenge just for your loved one to breathe, the relationship between bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be the last thing on your mind as their caregiver. 

However, to find the appropriate treatments, it’s essential to understand the link between COPD and bronchitis. For older adults specifically and people with compromised immune systems, the two conditions can significantly impact their quality of life. 


What Is Bronchitis? 


The bronchi and bronchioles are tubes inside the lungs in which air flows. Bronchitis occurs when these tubes become inflamed or filled with mucus. Individuals with bronchitis may have difficulty breathing and display the following symptoms: 


  • A hacking cough lasting five days or longer

  • Phlegm (clear, white, yellow, or green in a productive cough)

  • Fatigue

  • Chills or shivering

  • Tenderness in the chest when coughing

  • Wheezing or whistling when breathing

  • Rattling sound on chest


Children and adults who have bronchitis usually do not have severe complications. Older adults, on the other hand, may have trouble recovering or experience complications. 


2 Types Of Bronchitis To Be Aware Of


Although almost all (95%) of all bronchitis start from a viral infection, not all cases are the same. For example, many cases of bronchitis stem from cigarette smoking, air pollution, or consistent exposure to toxins. 

Most cases of bronchitis last for short periods while others can linger for a lifetime. To appropriately diagnose bronchitis, a health care provider may require diagnostic tests such as chest x-rays, CT scans, and pulmonary function tests. 

Bronchitis is categorized into two primary types of bronchitis: acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. 


Acute Bronchitis

A “chest cold” or short-term bronchitis is also known as acute bronchitis. Acute bronchitis has a limited duration and is typically caused by a cold or flu. Out of the two major types of bronchitis, acute bronchitis is more common. Risk factors for acute bronchitis include exposure to allergens, pollutants, or pathogens. 

Every year, about 5% of the general population experiences a case of acute bronchitis, mostly during the flu season. The most common viruses responsible for acute bronchitis are the syncytial virus, parainfluenza, rhinovirus, and influenza virus A and B. Most of these cases often resolve on their own, without the use of any antibiotics or any need for medical treatments. 


Chronic Bronchitis

The less common type of bronchitis is called chronic bronchitis. Unlike acute bronchitis, which resolves fairly quickly, symptoms of chronic bronchitis may persist for months or years.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), symptoms of chronic bronchitis are usually more severe than acute bronchitis. 

Symptoms like a chronic cough, fatigue, and sputum production can remain for a lifetime. These symptoms repeatedly flare up and die down, causing mucus build-up within the airways, lung damage, and reduced lung function, which can all compromise a person’s ability to breathe in the long run. 

Unlike acute bronchitis, most cases of chronic bronchitis are not caused by a virus or bacteria. Instead, cigarette smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. Other environmental factors like air pollution, irritants, and exposure to toxins can also cause chronic bronchitis. 


What Is COPD? 


COPD is a long-term progressive illness, meaning it lasts for a while and gets worse over time. COPD is the third leading cause of disease-related death in the U.S. because the condition affects how well a person breathes. 

The symptoms of COPD are very similar to those of chronic bronchitis, which may include:

  • Wheezing

  • Increased mucus in the chest 

  • Difficulty breathing (shortness of breath), especially with activity

  • Cough 

The two most common illnesses that fall under the category of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 


Difficulty Breathing with COPD


Similar to chronic bronchitis, most illnesses under the COPD category typically develop due to cigarette smoking or exposure to pollutants that cause lung damage. 

With COPD, the swelling and mucus can make breathing challenging, limiting the air flowing in and out of the lungs. The drop in airflow occurs because of at least one of the following factors:

  • Airways and tiny sacs throughout the lungs lose their elasticity and flexibility. 

  • Walls between air sacs are damaged. 

  • Airways become irritated, swollen, and inflamed. become thick and inflamed.

  • Excess mucus clogs the airways and limits airflow.

During the early stages of COPD, there are few or no symptoms. As the condition progresses, the symptoms typically worsen and can impact your loved one’s health and quality of life. 

The terms COPD, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis are so closely related that many people use them interchangeably. Individuals with a diagnosis of COPD usually have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both conditions. 


What's The Link Between COPD & Bronchitis? 


There are two types of lung conditions to look out for when it comes to your loved one, those that are restrictive and those that are obstructive.


  • Restrictive lung disease limits the amount of air an individual can breathe in (inhale).

  • Obstructive lung disease prevents a person from releasing all the air from their lungs (exhale). 

Chronic bronchitis falls under the umbrella of COPD because it’s an obstructive lung disease, that keeps individuals from exhaling the air within their lungs. Acute bronchitis, however, does not fall under the category of COPD because the symptoms aren’t long-term and eventually resolve. 

Furthermore, the illnesses that do fall under the category of COPD can occur together, putting a higher burden on a person’s immune system and resources. For example, chronic bronchitis can occur with other lung conditions such as: 


  • Asthma

  • Tuberculosis

  • Upper respiratory infections

  • Sinusitis

  • Pulmonary emphysema

  • Pulmonary fibrosis 

Fortunately, COPD and chronic bronchitis can be prevented. And with proper management, if your loved one gets diagnosed with COPD, they can have an excellent quality of life. 


Complications of Chronic Bronchitis or COPD


Complications can occur with bronchitis or COPD due to its effect on the lungs and other organs in the body. Both conditions can make it hard to breathe, resulting in an inadequate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This imbalance can increase the risk for bronchitis and COPD exacerbations and complications, such as: 


  • Lung infections

  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)

  • Heart problems (atrial fibrillation, cor pulmonale, right-sided heart failure)

  • Weight gain

  • Lung cancer

  • Pulmonary hypertension 


COPD-related conditions are caused by impaired lung function from damaged lungs, which can cause both short-term and long-term complications. Because of the increased health risks, it is vital that if your loved one does have COPD – especially severe COPD cases – follow their health care provider’s treatment recommendations. 


Treatment Options For Chronic Bronchitis Or COPD

Chronic bronchitis and COPD treatment options may include a mix of therapies, medications,  and lifestyle changes. These COPD treatment plans may include the use of: 


  • Bronchodilators to open airways

  • Corticosteroids to reduce airway inflammation

  • Antibiotics to fight bacterial infections

  • Combination inhalers to clear airways and reduce inflammation.

  • Flu, Covid-19, and pneumonia vaccines (especially for older adults) reduce the risk for other respiratory diseases.  

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation to improve lung function. 

  • Oxygen therapy for severe COPD protects the organs and keeps a person active. 

  • Surgeries like a lung transplant or bullectomy to replace or repair damaged lung areas in cases of severe COPD. 


Quitting smoking and avoiding environmental irritants are essential for preventing COPD and reducing the risk factors for complications. 


How To Prevent COPD & Bronchitis Moving Forward


Chronic bronchitis and COPD are interconnected, with chronic bronchitis falling under the category of COPD. Older adults have an increased risk for complications from chronic bronchitis and COPD, therefore, prevention, identification, and treatment are the key to keeping them safe. 

The primary way to prevent COPD is to ensure you and your loved one do not smoke and stay away from second-hand smoke as much as possible. However, once COPD is diagnosed, ensuring healthy lung function and preventing respiratory illnesses are the primary goals. 

Ensuring that you and your loved one adhere to yearly recommended vaccinations, maintaining hand hygiene, and avoiding breathing triggers can go a long way to keeping your loved one with COPD healthy and safe.