Making Lifestyle Changes Can Make a Difference
A chronic cough and difficulty breathing are two defining symptoms of chronic bronchitis, a long-term condition that affects millions of Americans. Chronic bronchitis is among the conditions included in the category chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD refers to a group of lung diseases that block air flow through the lungs and affect breathing; chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common conditions. Chronic bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes, which carry air to your lungs, are constantly irritated and inflamed — usually from smoking. The inflamed tubes produce mucus, which leads to coughing and difficulty breathing.
In emphysema, the air sacs of the lungs are damaged, which creates traps for air, and prevents you from being able to properly exhale old air and take in the oxygen you need. People who have emphysema can also have chronic bronchitis.
There are two kinds of bronchitis: acute and chronic. While the causes of both are different, the symptoms for both are similar: a cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and production of mucus. Acute bronchitis is caused by the viruses that cause colds and flu. Though bacteria may also cause acute bronchitis, antibiotics should never be prescribed; acute bronchitis usually lasts for a week to ten days and clears up on its own.
Smoking and prolonged exposure to environmental irritants, like fumes or dust, are the causes of chronic bronchitis, which is a serious, long-term medical condition that, while it can’t be cured, can be managed.
Your doctor will help you figure out the best treatment for chronic bronchitis. You may be prescribed either a bronchodilator, which is a drug that relaxes the muscles around your bronchial tubes, or a steroid, which helps reduce swelling around the tubes. Both come in pill and inhaler forms. Oxygen therapy, which replenishes the oxygen your inflamed airways can’t supply you with, may also help.
Making some lifestyle changes also helps. The first and most important, says Michael J. Simoff, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, is to kick the habit if you’re a smoker. The second is sticking to a medication schedule at all times — even when you start feeling better.
Read on to find out more about these ten strategies for managing chronic bronchitis:
Trying breathing exercises
Using a humidifier
Adjusting your exposure to irritants
Wearing a mask
Exercising to keep up strength
Keeping at a healthy weight
Resting to conserve energy
Learning relaxation techniques
Asking for help in daily chores
Stop Smoking and You'll Breathe Easier
Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis: An estimated 80 to 90 percent of people who have the condition smoke or have a history of smoking. A "smoker's cough" may be the first sign of chronic bronchitis. A chronic cough is a warning that smoking is damaging your lungs, and the damage may not be reversible. "Once you've lost lung function, you can't get it back,” Dr. Simoff says, “but when you stop smoking, your bronchitis symptoms will improve. You'll do better all around."
Try Pursed-Lip Breathing to Open Airways
Pursed-lip breathing is a technique you can practice when you're having difficulty breathing. Breathe in through your nose with your mouth closed; when you exhale, purse your lips as you would to blow out a candle. "This technique helps get trapped air out of your lungs and keeps your airways open longer," Simoff explains. Ask your doctor or your respiratory therapist to help you learn this simple breathing exercise.
Use a Humidifier to Improve Your Lung Health
"Try going outside on a dry day and breathing through your mouth to see how much harder it is to breathe dry air," Simoff says. "Humidity is good for lung health." If the air in your home is dry, use a humidifier. The most important room to keep humid is your bedroom, and make sure you clean your humidifier regularly to prevent mold. Keep the humidity in your home between 30 and 50 percent.
Avoid Airborne Irritants in Dust and Aerosols
People who work around dust and fumes — coal miners and grain handlers, for example — have an increased risk of developing chronic bronchitis. If you've been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, certain irritants can inflame your airways and make your symptoms worse. Air pollution, dust, and chemical fumes should be avoided as much as possible. You also need to be careful with aerosol products, such as hairsprays, household cleaners, spray paints, and deodorants, all of which can irritate your lungs.
Wear a Mask to Protect Yourself Against Symptoms
Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth can help you avoid airborne irritants that may make your bronchitis symptoms worse. "For people with normal lungs, a small amount of irritation is usually tolerated well,” Simoff says, “but that same irritation can trigger symptoms in people with chronic bronchitis. A simple mask from a pharmacy or hardware store can protect you when you're in situations where you're exposed to dust, fumes, or other irritants in the air."
Stay Active and You'll Keep Up Lung Strength
"Regular exercise is important if you have chronic bronchitis," Simoff says. "When you have difficulty breathing, you tend to avoid exercise because it makes you uncomfortable, but that's the worst thing you can do." Inactivity can result in “deconditioning” — loss of lung strength that is hard to regain.
"Most people with chronic bronchitis should gradually build up to 40 minutes of exercise six times a week," says Simoff. Walking is one of the best exercises for people who have difficulty breathing.
Managing Your Weight Will Help You Stay Healthy
"Being overweight makes it harder to exercise and puts more stress on your lungs and heart," Simoff says. "More weight means more work with every step you take." For some people with chronic bronchitis, not gaining weight can be a problem — difficulty breathing can make it hard to have a good appetite. "Make sure you get enough fluids and the right kind of nutrition," Simoff says. Ask your doctor or a nutritionist for help in maintaining a healthy weight.
Let Yourself Rest When You Need to Recharge
"You need to stay active with chronic bronchitis, but staying active requires energy, which means you also need to know when to rest," says Simoff. People with COPD may use up to 10 times more calories just for breathing than people with healthy lungs. "It's important to know your limitations and not push yourself too hard," Simoff says. A pulmonary rehabilitation program can help you learn how much activity you can tolerate.
Learn to Relax to Reduce Stress and Symptoms
"Having difficulty breathing can be frightening,” Simoff says. Anxiety can make the symptoms of chronic bronchitis worse and may cause breathing to become more rapid and shallow. Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy can help you learn that you can be a little short of breath and still be safe. Practicing mind-body techniques, such as tai chi, yoga, deep breathing, and meditation, can help you relax and reduce bronchitis symptoms, making life in general easier for you.
Ask for Help From Your Friends, Family, and Doctor
Accommodating your limitations may mean asking for help from friends and family, especially if your chronic bronchitis symptoms get worse. You can simplify chores by using a cart with wheels to move things around your home; work-saving devices, such as tongs with a long handle, can also help you save energy. Get help moving heavy objects up or down stairs.
Learn as much as you can about chronic bronchitis and work closely with your doctor to figure out other steps you can take to help manage your symptoms.