Emphysema and chronic bronchitis

The symptoms we have just described are known as chronic bronchitis ('bronk-eye-tuss'). Because the airways are constantly irritated and inflamed, the lining of the bronchioles becomes thicker and the space in the middle of the tube becomes smaller. This further restricts the amount of air that can get into and out of the lungs.

People with COPD also develop a condition called emphysema ('em-fee-see-mah'). Persistent coughing stretches these delicate structures so much that over time they lose their elastic quality and become stiff. This means that they don't expand as easily to let air enter. Also, the walls between many of the alveoli are destroyed by the high pressure inside the air sacs when a cough fails to dislodge a mucus obstruction. This damage leads to fewer larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. If this happens, the amount of gas exchange in the lungs is reduced.

Normal and blocked airways and alveoli

(Top) Normal airways and alveoli (air sacs). (Bottom left) Airways blocked with mucus and (bottom right) alveoli damaged by COPD. (Source: The Open University, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, SDK125, Case Study 5, Figure 1.2)
Last modified: Friday, 4 July 2014, 10:15 AM