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Emphysema, Chronic Bronchitis, and Colds


If you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you know how miserable it feels when you catch a cold. After all, breathing is difficult enough with a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Not only does catching a cold worsen your ability to breathe and be active, but the cold virus increases your chance of getting a more serious respiratory tract infection. Here's what you must know to stay well.

What is emphysema and chronic bronchitis?

Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are chronic (long-term) lung diseases that make it hard to breathe. Both diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), meaning they are conditions that cause a limitation in airflow. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur separately or together and are usually the result of cigarette smoking. In addition, although it happens rarely, a genetic form of emphysema can occur early in adulthood, even if you never smoked.

In the United States, COPD is vastly under diagnosed. While only 15 to 20 percent of smokers are diagnosed with COPD, experts believe the majority of smokers develop some degree of airflow obstruction.

Emphysema comes on gradually after years of exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke. With emphysema, the tiny air sacs in the lungs become damaged. Because the tiny sacs lose their "stretch," less air gets in and out of the lungs. This causes you to feel short of breath.

With chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs are inflamed and produce a lot of mucus. The mucus and inflammation cause the airways to narrow or become obstructed, making it difficult to breathe. Once the airways are irritated over a long period, the lining of the airways becomes thickened. This thickening of the airways results in an irritating cough, hampered airflow, and lung scarring. The damaged airways then become a breeding place for bacterial infections such as pneumonia.

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