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Chronic Bronchitis vs. Emphysema: What’s the Difference?

senior man coughing

How much do you know about long-term, or chronic, lung conditions? Most people recognize that they’re progressive diseases and that shortness of breath is a key symptom. Some might also be familiar with the umbrella term COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which refers to a group of progressive lung diseases that affect the respiratory system—making it increasingly difficult to breathe. These lung diseases largely include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. But even though these are two of the most common COPD conditions, a lot of people are unfamiliar with their specifics. While you can safely assume that both conditions affect the respiratory system, causing shortness of breath, spotting the differences between the two is trickier.

Taking the time to learn the differences between chronic bronchitis and emphysema will help you better understand COPD and its symptoms. To help you navigate these similar lung diseases, we’ve put together this resource where we’ll cover everything from distinct symptoms to management techniques.

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What is Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term respiratory condition that affects the lungs. This disease is very common among smokers, causing inflammation in the lung’s main airways (bronchi). When inflamed or irritated, bronchial tubes increase mucus production and cause other respiratory discomforts, all of which can block air flow to the lungs and cause breathing problems. A person is typically diagnosed with chronic bronchitis if they:

  • Have a cough and excessive mucus production on most days for at least three months, two years in a row
  • Other causes of symptoms are ruled out, like tuberculosis

Symptoms

Symptoms can come and go with chronic bronchitis, but the condition is a constant struggle for COPD patients. Chronic bronchitis symptoms that are distinct to the condition include:

What is Emphysema?

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease that most commonly affects smokers and people who regularly breathe in irritants. This disease gradually destroys the alveoli, tiny air sacs in the lungs, weakening them until they break. Eventually, the destruction will reduce oxygen intake and lung elasticity—making it harder to breathe, especially when exerting yourself.

Symptoms

Since symptoms start gradually, you could have emphysema for years and never know it. And the main symptom—shortness of breath—can be written off as a number of common conditions. If you find that you’re avoiding certain activities that exhaust you or are experiencing unexplained shortness of breath, don’t ignore the symptoms—seek immediate medical attention, as it could be emphysema. Other distinct symptoms to look out for in addition to shortness of breath when exerting yourself include:

  • Shortness of breath when resting
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty performing day-to-day tasks
  • Feeling less alert
  • Blue/gray fingernails and/or lips

Key Differences

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two of the most common lung diseases that fall under COPD. While both are chronic conditions that affect the respiratory system and make it difficult to breathe, they each target different areas of the lungs and display distinct symptoms:

  • Chronic bronchitis inflames the bronchi and has fluctuating symptoms: excessive mucus production, cough, fever.
  • Emphysema gradually destroys the alveoli and almost exclusively causes shortness of breath.

How to Manage COPD

While there is currently no cure for chronic bronchitis and emphysema, there are ways that you can manage your COPD symptoms and slow the damage to your lungs. Some at-home lifestyle changes and treatments that you can start today include:

For COPD Exacerbations, Call DispatchHealth 

Progressive lung diseases are a nasty business. Even if you take all the above steps to manage your symptoms, you’re going to have bad days. When a COPD flare-up strikes, DispatchHealth can help you breathe easier. We provide acute care, treatment, and testing for people of all ages in the comfort and safety of their homes. Our in-home service has helped many benefit from prompt healthcare for their acute needs, allowing them to skip a trip to the ER and enjoy personalized treatment in a familiar setting. 

patient treated in home

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this service has become even more valuable for those at risk of developing coronavirus-related complications—particularly those with COPD. DispatchHealth can test for COVID-19 as well as provide in-home support and treatment for people with COVID-19 symptoms. And, in response to the pandemic, our teams are taking extra care to protect patients by wearing PPE gear and following strict disinfection protocols.

Contact us to learn more about how DispatchHealth is responding to COVID-19. Requesting care for your acute COPD symptoms is as easy as getting in touch via phone, mobile app, or website.

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article: 

  1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325616
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/copd/emphysema-vs-chronic-bronchitis
  3. https://www.mana.md/the-difference-between-copd-and-emphysema/
  4. http://www.emphysemafoundation.org/index.php/about-uss/privacy/83-copd-emphysema-articles/428-emphysema-vs-chronic-bronchitis-understanding-the-differences
  5. https://lunginstitute.com/blog/difference-between-emphysema-and-chronic-bronchitis/
  6. https://www.healthline.com/health/emphysema