Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung conditions that cause airflow blockage and breathing difficulties. Chronic bronchitis is one of the conditions under the COPD umbrella, and the other is emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis and COPD may develop over time. While both also have no cure, doctors may prescribe certain medications to help manage symptoms and slow progression.

In this article, we compare chronic bronchitis and COPD. We discuss their definitions and whether they are the same and answer some common questions about the two conditions.

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According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, COPD is a preventable and treatable disease. Persistent breathing problems resulting from damage to the airways and alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) characterize COPD.

There are two main types of COPD: Chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis occurs when the large air passages leading to the lungs — known as the bronchi — become inflamed and scarred. This damage causes the bronchi to produce excessive mucus, resulting in chronic cough and breathing problems.

People typically receive a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis when they cough with mucus on most days for at least three months a year for 2 consecutive years.

Emphysema is a disorder that affects the alveoli. In people with emphysema, the alveoli abnormally inflate, damaging the structure’s walls and causing breathing difficulties.

Doctors may use various tests, for example, spirometry or imaging tests, to tell chronic bronchitis apart from other COPD types.

Learn more about how doctors tell the difference between emphysema and bronchitis here.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are both long-term lung conditions that contribute to COPD. Most people with COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The conditions can vary in severity among people with COPD.

Who has it?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COPD affects around 15.7 million people in the United States.

The American Lung Association states that in the U.S. in 2018:

  • 12.5 million adults reported a COPD diagnosis
  • 9 million adults reported a chronic bronchitis diagnosis
  • 2 million adults reported an emphysema diagnosis


Some people have no or mild symptoms in the early stages of chronic bronchitis and COPD. Symptoms usually become more severe as the disease progresses.

Broadly, the symptoms of chronic bronchitis and COPD may include:

  • frequent cough with excessive mucus
  • wheezing, or a whistling sound when breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath

People may experience flare-ups with chronic bronchitis and COPD. In cases of advanced disease, people can expect to experience worsening symptoms, and these may affect a person’s ability to perform daily activities.

Learn more about severe COPD here.


Long-term exposure to irritants that damage the lungs and airways typically causes chronic bronchitis and COPD.

Tobacco smoke plays a key role in the development and progression of COPD in the U.S. However, other factors likely influence the development of the conditions. These include being genetically susceptible because not all people who smoke cigarettes develop chronic bronchitis or COPD.

Other irritants that cause COPD may include:

  • secondhand smoke
  • pipe smoke
  • cigar smoke
  • air pollution
  • workplace exposure to smoke, chemical fumes, or dust

Risk factors

The following factors — beyond smoking — may increase a person’s risk of chronic bronchitis and COPD:

  • other lung irritants
  • a disease affecting a baby’s lungs in the womb or during childhood
  • infections, such as HIV and tuberculosis
  • being aged 40 or over
  • a condition that runs in families known as alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency

Below are some common questions and answers on the topic.

How serious is chronic bronchitis?

Unlike acute bronchitis, which usually results from respiratory infections and improves within 10–20 days, chronic bronchitis is severe and develops over time.

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis may improve and worsen, but people tend to experience long-term breathing difficulties that significantly impact their daily activities.

Many people with COPD can maintain a good quality of life by managing their symptoms.

How long can you live with chronic bronchitis compared to other COPD types?

The life expectancy of a person with chronic bronchitis and other types of COPD depends on their age, health, and symptoms.

Doctors may use scoring systems, such as those outlined in GOLD guidelines, to help determine a person’s life expectancy. Another scoring system is the BODE index.

A 2020 study estimated that severe-stage COPD shortens a person’s life span by around 8–9 years. However, people can slow down the progress of chronic bronchitis and other COPD types by stopping smoking and accepting guidance from a healthcare team.

Is the treatment for chronic bronchitis different compared with other COPD types?

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis and other forms of COPD, so managing the disease is often complex and lifelong.

Treatments typically aim to:

  • control symptoms
  • slow progression
  • improve quality of life

Doctors may advise people to quit smoking or never start smoking. Also, they may provide certain medications, such as bronchodilators or inhaled steroids, to help relieve pressure in the airways and inflammation.

In the later stages of the disease, some people may require surgery or a lung transplant.

Learn more about how doctors may help someone manage their COPD symptoms here.

COPD is a group of diseases that cause breathing problems and get worse over time. These diseases are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis involves inflammation and scarring of the bronchi, and emphysema involves permanent damage to the walls of the alveoli. Doctors may diagnose chronic bronchitis in people with a mucus cough that lasts for at least 3 months in a year for 2 years in a row.

Smoking plays a key role in COPD development and progression. Quitting smoking can slow down COPD progression and improve breathing. All COPD types involve the same treatments that can reduce symptom severity and enhance quality of life.

COPD may reduce a person’s life span by approximately 8–9 years.