COPD, Bronchitis, and Emphysema: How Do They Relate?

COPD, Bronchitis, and Emphysema: How Do They Relate?

By COPD Connect StaffCA Published at December 11, 2017 Views 5,683 Comments 1 Likes 2

What is the difference between chronic bronchitis and emphysema? How are they related to or different than COPD?
These distinctions can be difficult even for the most established patient to flesh out, but they are often especially confusing for a newly diagnosed person.

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are actually the two main conditions that commonly make up COPD. Since most people who have COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, it can be difficult to distinguish between the conditions. Thus, the general term COPD is more accurate and they are lumped together under that umbrella.

It’s important to note you can have COPD without both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most people, however, have a combination of both.

What is bronchitis?

When you breathe in air, it goes down your windpipe and into tubes in your lungs called bronchial tubes or airways. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways thickens because it is constantly irritated and inflamed. Lots of thick mucus also forms in the airways. This can narrow or block the airways, making it hard for a person to breathe.

Because the mucus is so abundant and thick, it is often difficult for a person to cough it out. The large amounts of thick mucus make the lungs a perfect habitat for bacteria to thrive, making bacterial lung infections among people who have chronic bronchitis quite common and frequent.

Chronic bronchitis is primarily caused by cigarette smoking, second hand smoke and air pollution. It is irreversible, but treatments can try to help clear the airways of mucus to avoid lung infections and to prevent further disability.

What is emphysema?

After air enters your lungs, it’s shifted into your bronchial tubes which branch into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called bronchioles. Each bronchiole ends with bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli. When working properly, the alveoli are like balloons; as you breathe in and out, they get bigger and smaller and exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide with capillaries.

Emphysema slowly destroys the alveolis, limiting this gas exchange and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your blood stream. Emphysema turns the spherical air sacs into large, irregular pockets with gaping holes. It also slowly destroys the elastic fibers that hold open the small airways leading into the air sacs. Less air gets in and out of the lungs, which makes you feel short of breath.

Emphysema is also most commonly caused by smoking, air pollution, fumes or dust from manufacturing or mining. It can also be caused by an inherited deficiency of a protein that protects elasticity in the lungs in very rare cases.

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