Chronic Bronchitis Vs Emphysema

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are both different types of a lung disorder known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Both of them are long-term lung conditions and it can be difficult to tell them apart. Each condition presents a set of lung symptoms along with problems with breathing. They also affect the normal airflow in the lungs and the airways and are typically caused by smoking, though they have also been attributed to air pollution, genetic conditions, exposure to dust, fumes, or toxic gases. It may be that many people suffer from both chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which is why the term COPD is used during diagnosis. Learning about the symptoms of chronic bronchitis and emphysema and how these conditions get diagnosed can help you understand chronic bronchitis versus emphysema better.

Chronic Bronchitis Vs Emphysema. Differences Based on Definition

Chronic Bronchitis Vs Emphysema. Differences Based on Definition

Chronic Bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a condition that causes severe inflammation in the lungs. Bronchitis affects the passageways of the lungs and also affects the windpipe. Chronic bronchitis is usually a result of an infection or severe irritation to the entire upper respiratory tract. Chronic bronchitis generally lasts for a long period of time and you will notice that people suffering from this condition tend to constantly cough severely as this is the body’s natural reaction in an attempt to clear the air passages.

Emphysema. Emphysema is the opposite of chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is a condition that involves the gradual destruction of the alveoli in the lungs, or the air sacs present in the lungs. This destruction hinders the process of breathing. The air sacs in the lungs are primarily responsible for supplying oxygen into the bloodstream and as emphysema gradually weakens the alveoli, it also destroys the elasticity of the pulmonary airways. Due to this, people suffering from emphysema end up experiencing shortness of breath and are constantly struggling to breathe properly.

The primary difference between chronic bronchitis and emphysema lies in the manner in which each disease affects the lungs.

Chronic Bronchitis Vs Emphysema. Differences Based on Symptoms

We have already established that both chronic bronchitis and emphysema affect the lungs. This means that both these conditions can cause the same types of symptoms. Some symptoms these conditions have in common, while there are certain differences as well which can help in determining which condition you are suffering from.

Some of the common symptoms of chronic bronchitis include.

  • Chest discomfort or chest tightness
  • Coughing up white or clear mucus
  • Feeling shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by air cigarette smoking, air pollution, and second-hand smoke.

The common symptoms of emphysema include.

  • Wheezing
  • A long-term cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of not being well enough to get sufficient air
  • Long-term mucus production
  • Fatigue
  • Smoking is the primary cause of emphysema.

Let us take a look at the symptoms that both chronic bronchitis and emphysema have in common.

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath is one of the biggest and nearly the only symptom of emphysema. You may not immediately realize that you are feeling short of breath. It starts small usually, for example, after having a long walk, you may find it difficult to breathe, but you tend to dismiss it as happening because of the stress from taking a long walk.

Over a period of time, though, this shortness of breath worsens and before you know it, you start having difficulty breathing even while sitting down doing nothing.
In people suffering from chronic bronchitis, shortness of breath is not as common, though it is a possible symptom. As a chronic cough and inflammation in the airways worsen, it makes it difficult to catch your breath.


People suffering from emphysema find themselves becoming tired more easily and quickly as it becomes more difficult to breathe easily. The same is the case in people suffering from chronic bronchitis.

Your body starts lacking energy when the lungs are unable to properly inflate and provide oxygen to the bloodstream. Similarly, when the lungs are not able to properly expel the oxygen-depleted air from the lungs, then there is lesser space in the lungs for oxygen-enriched air. This causes a person to feel tired or weak.

Some of the symptoms that occur in emphysema or in chronic bronchitis are discussed in the table below.

symptoms that occur in emphysema or in chronic bronchitis

Are there any Specific Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis?

As compared to emphysema, chronic bronchitis has more notable symptoms, and apart from fatigue and difficulty in breathing, chronic bronchitis can also cause the following distinct symptoms.

A chronic cough. A chronic cough is usually one of the primary symptoms of chronic bronchitis because this condition produces excess mucus on the tissues that line the lungs. Your lungs, upon sensing the irritation being caused by this excess fluid, tries to remove the mucus by coughing. Since the excess production of mucus is a chronic process, the cough, then, also becomes a chronic occurrence.

Excess mucus production. When you suffer from chronic bronchitis, the airways of your lungs start producing more mucus than what is normal. In normal circumstances, mucus is present naturally in the airways to trap and remove any pollutants and contaminants. Chronic bronchitis causes excess mucus production and too much mucus can block your airways, making it difficult to breathe properly.

Fever. It is common to have a low-grade fever accompanied by chills when you suffer from chronic bronchitis. However, if your fever crosses 38oC or 100.4oF, then you could be having a different condition than bronchitis and must get it checked by a doctor.

Symptoms that come and go. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis tend to worsen for some time and then may suddenly get better. It is more likely for people having chronic bronchitis to pick up a bacteria or virus that worsens their present condition. It is also possible to experience both short-term (acute) and chronic bronchitis at the same time.

Are there any Specific Symptoms of Emphysema?

While there are many symptoms that are similar between the two conditions, there might be some distinct symptoms of emphysema. Emphysema is a progressive disease, meaning that the symptoms of emphysema tend to get worse over a period of time. Caused by smoking, emphysema symptoms do not stop from getting worse even if you quit smoking. It is possible, however, to slow down these symptoms.

While the primary symptoms of emphysema include fatigue and difficulty in breathing, but you may also experience certain complications, which include.

  • Decreased mental alertness
  • Difficulty carrying out tasks that require concentration
  • Grayish or bluish fingernails, particularly after physical activity

If you start experiencing these complications, then this means that the emphysema is becoming more severe and it is time to consult a doctor. Your doctor will then be able to formulate a treatment plan looking at your symptoms.

Chronic Bronchitis Vs Emphysema. Differences Based on Diagnosis

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis gets diagnosed after you have already experienced several episodes of short-term bronchitis. Acute or short-term bronchitis causes inflammation in the lungs, which lasts only for a short period of time. This can affect anyone and is typically a result of a bacterial or viral infection.

Doctors do not diagnose you with chronic bronchitis until you have already experienced three or more bouts of acute bronchitis during one year.

When you have recurrent bronchitis, then your doctor will go ahead and perform a couple of diagnostic tests to check whether you may be having COPD. Some of the tests that are used to diagnose chronic bronchitis include.

  • Pulmonary function tests. A series of tests that helps your doctor determine how well your lungs are functioning and also helps check for any alterations in lung function. Doctors usually use a spirometer, an instrument that measures airflow and lung capacity rate. This test helps a doctor diagnose and identify bronchitis.
  • Imaging tests. Similar to diagnosing emphysema, doctors use chest x-rays and CT scans to get an idea of what exactly is going on in your lungs.
  • Arterial blood gas test. An arterial blood gas test helps doctors determine the blood’s pH levels, and also assess the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. This test is also a measure of how well your lungs are functioning.


There is no one test that detects and diagnoses emphysema. Your doctor will first assess all your symptoms and also review your medical history, and perform a physical exam. After these steps, your doctor will then prescribe one or more diagnostic tests which may include.

Pulmonary function tests. These are a series of diagnostic tests that help your doctor check how well your lungs are functioning. This test makes it possible to measure the amount of air your lungs are able to hold, how well the air is emptying out of your lungs, and also how well the air is flowing in and out of your lungs. An instrument known as a spirometer is used for measuring just how strong the airflow is within the lungs and also estimates the size of your lungs.

X-ray and CT Scans. A chest x-ray and CT scan of the lungs helps your doctor detect what are the possible causes behind your symptoms.

AAT (Alpha-1 antitrypsin) Test. AAT is a protein that is responsible for protecting the lungs’ elasticity. Some people inherit a particular gene that makes them deficient in levels of AAT. People who suffer from this deficiency are more likely to develop emphysema, even without smoking.

Arterial blood gas test. This is a type of blood test that helps your doctor determine the exact reading of the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide present in your blood and also get a reading of the pH level of your blood. These numbers serve as an indication of how well your lungs are functioning.

Can Any Other Condition Cause the Same Symptoms?

  • There are many types of conditions that cause symptoms similar to both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, such as chest pain, difficulty in breathing, fatigue, and shortness of breath. In fact, it is quite possible that you are not suffering from either chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
  • In some cases, these symptoms can also be caused by asthma, a condition that occurs when your airways become inflamed and narrow, making it difficult to breathe.
  • Asthma can also cause excess mucus production.

In some rare cases, though, these symptoms may also be indicative of.

Furthermore, it is also not uncommon for people to get diagnosed with both chronic bronchitis and emphysema at the same time. People suffering from chronic bronchitis can also suffer from acute bronchitis at the same time.


If you are experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms of chronic bronchitis or emphysema and they are persisting for over a week or ten days, then it is better to consult a doctor.

If you are a smoker or even if you used to smoke, then you are at a much higher risk of developing COPD, so it is important that you consult a doctor for getting the right diagnosis at the earliest. Beginning treatment as soon as possible help reduce the risks of complications.

Your doctor would be the best person to determine if your symptoms are being caused by bronchitis, emphysema, or some other condition altogether. Keep in mind that without treatment, any of these conditions can worsen quickly and also cause complications and more severe symptoms to develop.

Perhaps the first thing you can do after getting diagnosed with either conditions, is to quit smoking if you are a smoker. Avoiding second hand smoke is also a necessary precaution.

Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are lifelong conditions and if you get diagnosed with any of these two conditions, then you will need to work together with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that helps you manage your symptoms in the long run.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:March 7, 2019

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