In this prospective qualitative study we evaluated the subjective perspectives of the quality of life of patients with chronic bronchitis. Individuals with diagnoses which fulfilled the clinical criteria of chronic bronchitis, i.e. daily production of sputum for at least three consecutive months in two consecutive years, were recruited into four focus groups from general practices in two industrial cities. Younger patients (those of pre-retirement age) of both sexes—a significant, but frequently ‘invisible’ minority in this patient population—were targeted. The groups were constituted with the aim of stimulating variation in the discussions. Twenty sufferers (10 males and 10 females, ranging in age from 30 to 86 years) were eventually included in the study; there were five in each group. Group discussions were recorded and transcribed verbatim and the data were analysed thematically. It was evident from the discussions that chronic bronchitis had led to a high degree of psychological distress in the participants, particularly in relation to dependency on medication, and disruption of social and family relationships. Acute exacerbations of chronic bronchitis (AECB) were met with dread. They brought about further reductions in quality of life, increased anxieties about breathlessness, fear of atmospheric pollution and of changes in and extremes of temperature, embarrassment about coughing up phlegm in public and suspicion of medical practitioners' motives if they were unwilling to prescribe antibiotics on request. Patients' health-related behaviour and beliefs were often contradictory. For example, AECB in some patients led to increased smoking. There were also gender and age differences; for example, it was the perception of males that they received more support from their partners than did females. Younger participants appeared more distressed by AECB than older ones. The results of this study suggest that raising the standard of care for patients with chronic bronchitis requires that greater attention be paid to patients' subjective experiences of the disease.

Correspondence address. Health Psychology, School for Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 30 Regent Street, Sheffield S1 4DA, UK. Tel: +44-114-222-0777; Fax: +44-114-272-4095; E-mail: p.nicolson@sheffield.ac.uk