What's the Difference Between COPD and Chronic Bronchitis?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the difference between COPD and chronic bronchitis?

Expert Answer

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.