Triggers of Chronic Bronchitis

Triggers of Chronic Bronchitis

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Exposure to air pollution may increase your risk for chronic bronchitis.

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Chronic bronchitis is an inflammatory condition of your bronchial tubes, which are the medium-sized airways between your windpipe and lungs. The hallmark of chronic bronchitis is a persistent cough that produces large amounts of sputum, or phlegm. According to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, the triggers and risk factors for chronic bronchitis mirror those for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is a progressive lung disorder marked by airway inflammation and reduced air flow.


Cigarette smoking is the most commonly identified risk factor for chronic bronchitis and COPD worldwide. According to a study published in the November 2006 issue of "Thorax," at least 25 percent of smokers develop COPD, and most of these people develop chronic bronchitis before being diagnosed with COPD. The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease reports that other forms of smoke -- cigars, pipes, water pipes, marijuana and passive smoke -- can also trigger chronic lung disease.

Occupational Exposure

Dusts, chemical agents and fumes are inevitable hazards in some jobs. Workers who are exposed to low levels of airborne contaminants may neglect to wear respiratory protection, inadvertently placing themselves at risk for airway irritation. The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that occupational exposure accounts for up to 20 percent of COPD cases in the U.S.

Because it takes several years for chronic bronchitis to progress to COPD, workers may leave their positions before their condition is recognized. This may make it difficult to identify what triggered their lung problem. If you are a smoker who is exposed to these hazards at work, your risk for chronic bronchitis and COPD is even higher.

Environmental Hazards

It isn't clear if chronic bronchitis is triggered by exposure to environmental agents. The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease reports that indoor pollution from burning fuels -- such as wood or coal -- is an important risk factor for COPD. Because chronic bronchitis represents a preliminary stage of COPD, exposure to airborne particulates from burning fuels could trigger chronic bronchitis, too. Similarly, urban air pollution has been identified as another potential risk factor for chronic lung diseases.


Not everyone who is exposed to airborne contaminants will develop chronic bronchitis or COPD. It is believed genetic factors may serve as triggers for these conditions in some people. A review in "The Journal of Clinical Investigation" in August 2012 cited several “host factors,” such as inefficient lung repair mechanisms and stronger-than-normal inflammatory responses to airborne contaminants, as potential triggers for chronic bronchitis and COPD. These factors are influenced by your individual genetic makeup.


According to a study published in the January 2011 issue of "International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease," nearly 10 million Americans had chronic bronchitis in 2008. The total cost for treating these people was $11.7 billion, with $6 billion going for hospital care. Chronic bronchitis is not a trivial disease. It has a significant negative impact on your quality of life. If you have a chronic, productive cough, see your doctor for an evaluation. Early diagnosis and treatment may alter the course of chronic bronchitis.