Bronchitis and pneumonia are incredibly common. What's more, they share some symptoms. When it comes to bronchitis vs pneumonia, how do you tell them apart? And how do you know when to go to the doctor?

Doctors diagnosed 8.9 million adults with chronic bronchitis last year. Strikingly, for US adults, pneumonia is the second most common reason for hospitalization. And people over 45 are at increased risk for both. When it comes to these two different conditions that can look similar, you need to know the facts.

Bronchitis VS Pneumonia: Definitions

Let's start with basic definitions for both bronchitis and pneumonia. Even though the symptoms may be similar, the causes, treatments, and outcomes are quite different.


What Is Bronchitis?

illustration of bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes carry air to your lungs. Bronchitis has two types: acute and chronic bronchitis.

Bronchitis, like pneumonia, often starts from a common cold. As the cold progresses, it may develop into either bronchitis vs pneumonia. It's hard to tell them apart just from your symptoms. But it does progress quickly.

Acute And chronic bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is quite common. It lasts about ten days to a week. Usually, it resolves on its own, though the accompanying cough can persist for weeks. Some may even call it a chest cold. Doctors define chronic bronchitis as a productive cough lasting three months. This is accompanied by recurring bouts occurring for two consecutive years.

Chronic bronchitis is more serious. It's common among smokers. People with decreased immunity and tend to suffer from repeated colds are also at increased risk. Gastric reflux sufferers may also develop chronic bronchitis, though this isn't as common. Over time the constant inflammation from smoking, constant colds, GERD, or other causes, turns into chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is part of a constellation of lung diseases called COPD. COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs. Instead of the bronchial tubes, the inflammation is in the tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. It can be serious, especially in children under five, adults over 65, and those who are immuno-compromised.


Bronchitis VS Pneumonia: Symptoms

Bronchitis and pneumonia share some symptoms, but others are unique.

Bronchitis

Pneumonia

Chest congestion is one of the hallmarks of bronchitis. People often report a fullness in the chest with a cough. This cough produces a thick mucus. The mucus could be clear, yellow or green. Due to the chest feeling clogged, patients may find it difficult to breathe. They may wheeze and have typical flu-like symptoms. These symptoms may include chills, fever, fatigue, sore throat and a running nose. Additionally, they may experience body aches and mild headaches.

The symptoms of pneumonia can be mild or severe, depending on the patient's age, immunity status, and the cause of their pneumonia. The symptoms include a wet cough with yellow or green mucus. This may be accompanied by blood. The person may experience high fever, chills, shortness of breath and fatigue. Sometimes, people complain of chest pain and delirium. Nausea, feeling light-headed, and headaches are common. Occasionally, pneumonia may exhibit no symptoms at all. This is especially the case with "walking pneumonia."

Bronchitis VS Pneumonia: Causes

Just as they have different symptoms, bronchitis and pneumonia often have different causes.

Bronchitis

Pneumonia

Acute bronchitis is caused by viruses. Likewise, the same viruses cause colds and flu (influenza). As a result, antibiotics don't help much in bronchitis. Rarely, if bacteria are responsible, then antibiotics can help.


In contrast, the most common cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking. If you're exposed to air pollution, toxic gases, and dust, you may also be more susceptible to it.

Unlike bronchitis, the causes of pneumonia include bacteria, fungi, viruses, and mycoplasma. As the body fights the infection in your lungs the air sacs swell and fill with fluid. This fluid then irritates the lining and produces symptoms.

When To Worry: Time To See A Doctor For Bronchitis?

doctor looking at an xray film

You may not be able to recognize bronchitis vs pneumonia. But if your cough brings mucus that is viscous and colored, then you should be safe and see a doctor. In addition, if a cough prevents you from sleeping and has lasted more than three weeks, then you should absolutely see a doctor. Any difficulty in breathing warrants a doctors visit, as does a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

When To See A Doctor For Pneumonia

If you're coughing up blood and pus, see a doctor. Any chest pain or fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit warrants a doctor's visit. Similarly, the difficulty of breathing and chills should prompt a doctor's visit.


Diagnosis Of Bronchitis VS Pneumonia

To diagnose bronchitis, your doctor will do a physical exam and look at your medical history. They will also look for infection and carry out blood tests are. They may also perform a chest X-ray to look at your lungs and bronchial tubes. The physical exam is particularly important when deciding between bronchitis vs pneumonia. Lungs with pneumonia tend to produce different lung sounds in the stethoscope. A chest X-ray and blood and sputum tests can help find the cause of pneumonia.

In those with severe symptoms, a test of arterial blood gases measures the oxygen content in blood. Similarly, pulse oximetry also measures blood oxygen. A CT scan also provides a better view of the lungs. Doctors may do a pleural fluid tap and culture if fluid fills up in your pleural space. For a more detailed view of your airways, they may order a bronchoscopy. This is done when antibiotics and medication fail.


Bronchitis VS Pneumonia: Treatment

The treatments for bronchitis and pneumonia is different. It's important that you get the right treatment, or your illness may not resolve.


Bronchitis Treatment

Almost always, acute bronchitis resolves on its own within a couple of weeks. For bacterial bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If there's significant difficulty breathing or wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler. Avoid cough medicine. Use it only at bedtime if a cough keeps you up. Cough medicines tend to suppress a cough. Coughing is a natural way the body clears out the mucus from the lungs. So its best to allow a cough clear out your airways. Furthermore, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin can help with pain relief. Similarly, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever.

Bronchitis Supportive Care

Drink plenty of fluids as coughing and running noses dehydrate you. The more fluids you take in, the thinner the mucus will be. This will make it easier to cough it up. Rest. Don't exert yourself. Rest will give your immune system time to focus on repair and healing. You can use a humidifier or steam inhalation to loosen up the mucus. Likewise, a hot shower works well too. If your symptoms are severe, the doctor may advise antibiotics or antiviral drugs. Similarly, severe life-threatening symptoms may prompt a hospital stay.

If you smoke, quit. If you have chronic bronchitis, then oxygen therapy may help you breathe better. In severe cases, pulmonary rehabilitation is also helpful.


Pneumonia Treatment

Antibiotics are a common treatment for a pneumonia infection. Sometimes, if the pneumonia is viral, the doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication instead.

Like bronchitis, pneumonia also requires supportive care with hydration, rest and pain relief. Avoid cough medicine. Pneumonia can take a few weeks to clear up. The accompanying fatigue may last as long as a month, so be kind to yourself.

Prevention

You can reduce the risk of chronic bronchitis by avoiding smoking and cigarette smoke. Also, get the yearly flu vaccine every year. Wash and disinfect your hands regularly. Reduce the chances of a viral infection through better hygiene. Wear a surgical mask. This is more important if you're exposed to toxic fumes at work.

If you want to prevent pneumonia, vaccination is the key. The recommended guideline by the AAFP is for adults over 65 to be vaccinated.


Can Bronchitis Turn Into Pneumonia?

Yes.

Bronchitis, if left untreated, can progress to pneumonia. Hence, timely diagnosis and treatment are essential. The complications of pneumonia include respiratory failure. This requires a ventilator. Another complication is sepsis. This is uncontrolled inflammation or infection of the body. It can lead to widespread organ failure. Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a severe form of respiratory failure is also a complication. Finally, lung abscesses can occur with untreated pneumonia.


Bronchitis Vs Pneumonia

Bronchitis and pneumonia may appear the same. The symptoms may feel similar. But the diseases have different causes, some different symptoms, and different treatments. Pneumonia symptoms are more serious and require more tests and treatment. Bronchitis often resolves on its own. Both require supportive care.

You can prevent both by staving off the flu. But with pneumonia, there is a special vaccine for those over 65.


Breathing Better

woman closing eyes smelling flowers outside

Without a doctor, it may be hard to spot the differences between bronchitis and pneumonia. However, you can tell if your condition is worsening based on your symptoms. Prevention can go a long way in these respiratory conditions. Often it's simply about breathing better. So make the right choices. Over 1 million hospital stays occur from pneumonia alone. This is preventable. Take the steps to breathe better.

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