Bronchitis and pneumonia are two types of chest infections that affect the airways and lungs. Although they are similar in some ways and can be hard to distinguish, there are key differences between bronchitis and pneumonia.
It’s essential to be aware of these differences because pneumonia is generally more severe than bronchitis and needs urgent medical care to slow down its progression.
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Bronchitis occurs when the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the lungs becomes infected. This leads to inflammation in the upper airways.
There are two types of bronchitis — acute and chronic bronchitis. This article focuses on acute bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, such as influenza, coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV, or the common cold). A person may develop bronchitis when they are unwell with one of these viral illnesses.
Less commonly, acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition usually caused by exposure to chemicals or irritants for a long time, such as tobacco smoke.
Some of the possible symptoms of bronchitis include:
A persistent cough that lasts a few weeks and can have clear, green, or yellow mucus
Shortness of breath
A wheezing sound during breathing
Chest congestion or a tight chest
A low-grade fever below 100 degrees Fahrenheit
Bronchitis can go away on its own after a couple of weeks, even without medication.
Some people might be prescribed an antibiotic if bacteria is the cause of the infection. However, these often aren’t recommended for treating bronchitis.
People can also manage their symptoms by taking over-the-counter or anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. Using a humidifier or having a hot shower to clear mucus, getting adequate rest, and drinking enough water, can also help.
It’s not possible to completely prevent bronchitis, but there are some steps people can take to reduce the risk of getting it.
Avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth
Getting the flu vaccine each year
Keeping up hand hygiene by washing your hands regularly with warm water and soap for 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer
Staying away from people who are sick
Wearing a surgical mask
Pneumonia occurs when the air sacs (alveoli) in one or both lungs get infected. The alveoli are responsible for exchanging gasses in the blood so that oxygen can enter and be transported around the body.
In pneumonia, the alveoli become filled with fluid and pus. This can make breathing difficult as it’s harder for oxygen to get into the blood. Pneumonia can worsen by spreading deeper into the lungs and affecting more areas.
Pneumonia is generally considered more serious than bronchitis and is currently the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.¹
The main cause of pneumonia is bacteria, but viruses, fungi, and inhaling saliva or food can also cause pneumonia.
Many of the symptoms of pneumonia and bronchitis are similar. However, the symptoms of pneumonia are generally more severe than bronchitis.
Possible symptoms of pneumonia include:
A “moist” or “wet” cough with yellow, green, or bloody mucus
A high fever
Low body temperature in people who have weak immune systems or are over the age of 65
Shortness of breath
Chest pain during coughing or breathing
Confusion in older adults
Nausea and vomiting
Rapid and shallow breathing
Loss of appetite
Like bronchitis, at-home rest, fluids, and pain relief medications can help manage symptoms. However, pneumonia, should not be used as a total replacement for prescription medications.
The best treatment depends on what exactly is causing pneumonia.
Bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics.
Viral pneumonia may be treated with antivirals.
Fungal pneumonia can be treated with antifungals.
In severe cases where someone has trouble breathing, they may need to receive supplemental oxygen, IV fluids, and medications in a hospital setting.
However, most people can treat pneumonia and recover at home by adhering to their prescribed medication.
Like bronchitis, pneumonia can’t be fully prevented. Ways to reduce the risk of getting pneumonia are the same as the preventative measures that can be taken for bronchitis.
A pneumonia vaccine is also available for children under five, older adults over 65, and anyone with underlying medical conditions that could make them very sick with pneumonia.
Bronchitis and pneumonia are almost similar infections and so can be easily mistaken. Fortunately, there are ways to tell them apart.
If you think you may have bronchitis or pneumonia, you must see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can work out what is causing your illness and ensure that you get the appropriate treatment to recover as fast as possible.
Bronchitis affects the tubes that carry air to the lungs, and pneumonia affects the alveoli within the lungs. A chest X-ray or a CT scan can show a doctor where the infection is so it can be correctly diagnosed.
The presence of acute cough and sputum production without the following symptoms suggests that acute bronchitis is more likely, and a chest X-ray is not always required:
Heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute
A respiratory rate greater than 24 breaths per minute
Oral body temperature over 38 degrees celsius
Hearing certain vibrations and sounds when listening to the lungs
Yes, some people can develop a secondary infection, such as pneumonia, after having bronchitis. This happens if the infection spreads from the bronchial tubes to the lungs. Getting pneumonia after bronchitis is rare and usually occurs in people with weak immune systems.
Although it can differ from person to person based on their medical history, pneumonia is generally considered more severe than bronchitis.
Bronchitis and pneumonia are similar because they are both chest infections and have similar symptoms and causes. The main difference is that they affect different areas of the lungs.