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What is the Connection Between Bronchitis and Emphysema?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 06 August 2018
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Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are both forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Both diseases involve the lungs and airways and can interfere with a patient's ability to breathe, causing symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and fatigue. The damage associated with chronic bronchitis and emphysema is irreversible, but it is possible to manage the patient's condition to prevent additional damage and make the patient more comfortable. Treatment can be overseen by a respiratory specialist or general physician, depending on the specifics of a patient's case.

In the case of bronchitis, the bronchial passages leading to the lungs become inflamed and irritated. The patient's mucus production in the lungs increases and the patient develops a thick, persistent cough. Exposure to smoke and airborne pollutants are two common causes for the development of inflammation, and in patients who are smokers, there is a very high risk of bronchitis. Emphysema involves damage to the alveoli, the small air sacs in the lungs that facilitate gas exchange and breathing. Over time, the number of alveoli are reduced and the sacs get larger, creating breathing problems for the patient.

It is important to distinguish between acute and chronic bronchitis when discussing the connections between bronchitis and emphysema. Acute bronchitis onsets suddenly and is of short duration. It can be cured, and the patient usually recovers. Chronic bronchitis onsets more suddenly and is persistent. It also resists treatment and the patient never makes a full recovery.

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It is possible for patients to have bronchitis and emphysema together. The same environmental causes can contribute to the development of both conditions and in addition, one can exacerbate the other. A patient with chronic bronchitis can develop emphysema as the lungs become inflamed from chronic high mucus production. Over time, the patient's ability to breathe is hindered. Less air will be taken in with each breath and patient will need to work harder to breathe. Bronchitis and emphysema together can cause a decline in quality of life, especially for physically active patients who are no longer able to be as active because of their breathing difficulties.

Medications are available to treat bronchitis and emphysema. These medications can open up the air passages, help the patient eliminate mucus, and facilitate easier breathing. Options such as transplant may be considered for severe cases of emphysema where patients are not responding well to treatment. Patients may also benefit from respiratory therapy and physical therapy to improve strength and learn some management techniques for their breathing difficulties.

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