What's the Difference Between COPD and Chronic Bronchitis?

8 answers | Last updated: Nov 10, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the difference between COPD and chronic bronchitis?

Expert Answers

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging.net. She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

Chronic bronchitis (also called chronic obstructive bronchitis) is a lung condition that's almost always part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the umbrella term that also includes emphysema, another common condition that people can have at the same time as chronic bronchitis.

Having COPD means that the person's lungs have developed permanent changes that affect the body's ability to exhale properly. These changes tend to worsen over time.

In chronic bronchitis, lung damage has affected the bronchi, which are the large passageways that take air in and out of the lungs. Normally the bronchi are able to relax and be more open when a person needs to breathe in and out faster. In chronic bronchitis, however, the bronchi develop scarring and damage that prevent them from relaxing effectively. Their walls can become swollen, thick, and less elastic.

The bronchi also tend to produce more mucus when they've been damaged. For this reason, people with chronic bronchitis also have a chronic cough for at least three months of the year. They may wheeze, making them sound similar to asthmatics. Although asthma and chronic bronchitis are not the same thing, having uncontrolled asthma for a long time can eventually lead to chronic bronchitis.

Community Answers

Oldcat answered...

I've had breathing problems for about two years but couldn't afford going to a doctor until I turned 65 a few months ago. Because I'm morbidly obese, the doctor I finally was able to go to (had gone to a free clinic before that when I got really really sick)decided to do a whole series of heart tests including a chemical stress test. Nothing showed up that would indicate a problem with my heart, a chest x-ray indicated no problems, and blood tests were fine except that my red blood count was unusually high. I am Type I diabetic. The doctor feels that my body is 'deconditioned' because of my weight (370 lbs.) and that's what's causing my breathing problems so recommended my going for cardiac therapy. When I asked about COPD she said it wasn't that because I never smoked. Is it possible to have COPD if you didn't smoke? As a child, my father worked in a factory that manufactured coal tar products and his clothes were often covered with gooey black globs that my mom, sister, or I had to scrape off his clothes before washing them...he eventually died from lung cancer even though he had never smoked because of his exposure to those and other carcinogens. I also worked at that company part-time as a teen and later full-time for two years in my mid 20's but in the office so is it even possible that breathing in or touching that goop all those years ago could of caused my breathing problems now. I know it sounds like I'm clutching at straws here but I'm not getting any answers except that all my problems are because I'm fat. I've been fat a long time but over a 13 year period where I cared full-time for my mom who had Alzheimers I added a lot more pounds....she died 2 years ago at age 89.

BTW, the shortness of breath is accompanied with SEVERE fatigue and weakness upon standing...for instance, I can only load the washing machine halfway before having to lean down on it because I'm short of breath and then after finally finishing having to sit down because I'm gulping for breath. I often get light-headed going from a lying to sitting position, feel unbalanced when walking...I can only walk very short distances without a walker and my daughter got me a wheelchair because there's no way I can walk for any length of time without feeling like I'm going to pass out.

I understand the weight implications but also know my body and sense something is very wrong and it frustrates me that no one will listen to me. In the meantime, should I be able to lose a substantial amount of pounds, which would be amazing because even a little bit of exercise has me feeling like I'm going to die off, something more serious could be taking hold. My father was misdiagnosed with having TB (in 1968) because he had never smoked and his doctor said he couldn't possibly have lung cancer. Six months later, finally another doctor diagnosed him but it was too late by then...I have a fear that could easily happen to me as well.

I'm probably expecting too much for an answer but maybe you could steer me in a direction where I could present my doctor with questions or something that would get me the attention I think I need.

Interesting note, Medicare has refused to pay for the chemical stress test because they say the doctor had to get it pre-approved as being necessary. I'm going round and round trying to settle this issue and could conceivably end up owing $2400 that I have no way to pay being on SS and not being able to work because I can't breathe properly. Here I thought that when I finally turned 65 that my life might finally get easier...the laughs on me.

Well, thanks for reading through all this. I hope you can wave your magic wand and come up with some sort of answer for me.

Frustrated in Orlando

A fellow caregiver answered...

Your weight could be the cause of many of your symptoms, but there could be a lot of other things going on as well. I would most certainly complain to a doctor or clinic until I got someone's attention. As far as your not having any money, you still deserve good health care and as you don't have an money, I would not worry about paying any bill that you might receive. In other words, if you don't have it they can't take it!

A fellow caregiver answered...

pay $5 per month on this medical bill though they should pay for it. the dr may have screwed up but that isnt your fault. try tea tree oil under your nose (just a small amount on your finger) 3 times per day. may help the symptoms and a bottle of tea tree oil is about $8 and lasts quite awhile. if it starts to irritate the skin dont do it for a few days. this is not going to hurt any other medicine that you are doing. hopefully this is cost effective and helps you.

A fellow caregiver answered...

The best thing to help you is a LIFESTYLE CHANGE!

Get back to the Basics: -Make a Lifestyle pledge, have a routine schedule and follow it. -Water: Drink lots of water before eating, hot tea -Diet: Go on a diet, eat healthy, drink hot Tea before & after meals -Exercise: Regularly, swimming is better for joints if you are obese -Doctor: Get checked up -Meditate, yoga, stretch-out, workout, yes even while watching TV

If you only do 1 or 2 of the above, then you are not making a LIFESTYLE CHANGE, you must do all the above everyday.

Joanne pb answered...

Insist on the spirometry test for COPD at a pulmonary doctor's office, don't worry about the money, if u don't have money then they can't take it from you as the other poster said. The weight may or may not have anything to do with your breathing problems, heart and lung issues can effect anyone for any reason so they should never rule it our just casue you are not a smoker..good luck to you! on and be persistant in your own medical care..you know your body best!!!

A fellow caregiver answered...

After living with this cough yearly since 3rd grade, I finally got a tentative diagnosis of Chronic Bronchitis. Tentative because I was seeing a Physicians Assistant for cough syrup. Now I find out it is one of the COPDs. Sometimes I pass out from coughing. I have never smoked. I will be seeing a specialist. When it is something routine and minor, I don't mind seeing a PA. I've been with my doctor for 20+ years. I (myself) know when I need to see him and not one of his PAs. I call his scheduler at 8:30AM and tell what I need to see him about, how serious it is (non-ER serious), and if I need to see him immediately. If she says he's booked solid till the middle of next month, I ask her to check with Doc and call me back that afternoon. I call in the morning so that I can get in that afternoon, even if I have to wait hours (take a good book, the magazines always stink). I know my health better than anyone and I've never abused this privilege.

However, now that you've learned about the downside not getting preauthorization, learn from it. I am very assertive with my doctor's support personnel. I speak to the referral person myself. I always ask for preauthorization for any referral procedure. If she tells me I don't need it, I ask her to call and confirm that, while I'm standing there. Last year I had a hernia repair. When the hospital called to set the procedure date, I had them make sure it was preauthorized. Then I had them transfer me to the business office and had them send me a financial aid form. I made sure that it was back to them well before the procedure date (even though they said I could just bring it with me). The cost to me after insurance was $0. I don't place much hope in the idea that "If you don't have money, they can't take it from you." I've been through bankruptcy and that's fine if you have NOTHING to lose. My friend had a heart attack. After insurance, she owned the hospital $24,000. She didn't have it. Her lawyer friend explained that the hospital's threat to taker her house (that was fully paid for) was legitimate. She and her family could be made homeless. Coming up with loans to cover the cost, almost gave her another heart attack.

Ryannah05 answered...

I have just been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, and I don't fit the typical profile in any way. I've never smoked or been around smokers, I've never worked around industrial pollutants, and I've never been overweight. My pulminologist says my chronic bronchitis is caused by my reflux -- stomach acid aspirating into the lungs repeatedly over several years. I was diagnosed with GERD in my mid-30s (7 years ago), and I didn't take it very seriously. I changed my diet and took antacids, but didn't stay on the Nexium prescription when my insurance didn't want to pay for it. I didn't know GERD could lead to a chronic lung condition, among other problems. So my personal experience is that nonsmokers can end up with COPD.