Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How to Tell the Difference

Bronchitis or Pneumonia
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Acute bronchitis and pneumonia are often confused because they cause such similar symptoms. A cough that lasts for weeks or even longer are hallmarks of both illnesses. However, there are key differences between these infections that you need to know about. If you have ever been diagnosed with either one or know someone who has, you'll want to know how they differ. 

Understanding Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs.

It can occur after a viral illness such as the common cold or flu or occasionally it can develop on its own.

Typically bronchitis is viral, meaning that antibiotics are not helpful in treating it.

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent Cough - with or without mucus
  • Sore Throat
  • Chest Pain - worse with cough
  • Chest Congestion
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Chills
  • Body Aches

Acute bronchitis can resolve on its own within about a week but the cough may linger for weeks or even months. If you have been diagnosed with bronchitis and your symptoms worsen or change significantly, you may have developed another infection. Contact your health care provider to be seen again if this happens.

Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, so antibiotics are rarely prescribed. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses and using them to treat a viral infection only leads to antibiotic resistance. Occasionally, bronchitis is caused by a bacteria and if your health care provider believes this is the case, she may prescribe antibiotics to treat it at that time.

More often, however, treating acute bronchitis simply means finding relief from the symptoms until the illness resolves.

You may find over the counter medications helpful and you should try to rest as much as possible and increase your fluid intake as well. And although acute bronchitis is bothersome, it is typically not as severe as pneumonia.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. People with pneumonia typically feel much worse than a person with bronchitis would. Although both illnesses can cause a painful cough, pneumonia causes other significant symptoms as well.

These may include:

  • Fever
  • Chest Pain
  • Productive Cough (may be described as a "moist" or "wet" cough as well)
  • Painful and Frequent Cough
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Chills

There are many types of pneumonia and some are more serious than others. The most common type of pneumonia in adults is bacterial pneumonia. It can cause severe illness and is a leading cause of death among Americans.

Treatment for pneumonia will depend on the cause but if you have bacterial pneumonia, you will almost always need to be treated with antibiotics. Other over the counter medications may be helpful to deal with the symptoms as well, but talk with your health care provider about which options are right for you. Getting adequate rest is essential when you have pneumonia. It is a serious illness that takes time to heal and recover from.

The CDC reports that approximately 400,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with pneumococcal pneumonia—the most common type of pneumonia.

Thousands die from it as well.

There are less severe forms of pneumonia—like walking pneumonia—that come with milder symptoms and don't always need to be treated with antibiotics. Your health care provider will determine what type of pneumonia you have based on your symptoms, a physical exam, and tests.

Chronic Bronchitis or COPD

Chronic bronchitis—or a COPD exacerbation—is another issue entirely. A COPD exacerbation is simply an acute worsening of the symptoms of COPD, such as wheezing, shortness of breath, mucus production, or coughing.

Depending on the kind of COPD a person has (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), these symptoms may be slightly different.

Patients with chronic bronchitis generally have more mucus production and cough, whereas people with emphysema have more shortness of breath, although either type of COPD can cause any number of these symptoms. A COPD exacerbation may be caused by an infection (virus, bacteria, or other kinds of pneumonia), but it may also be caused by non-infectious causes such as fumes, irritants, or smoke.

The treatment for an acute COPD exacerbation is often steroids, inhalers, and antibiotics (because bacterial infections often develop during an acute COPD exacerbation). If you have chronic bronchitis or COPD and experience worsening of your symptoms, contact your health care provider. He will be able to determine the correct treatment for you.

A Word From Verywell

Although bronchitis and pneumonia both cause coughs and can develop after more common illnesses such as the common cold or flu, they are significantly different. Only your health care provider can diagnose your illness and determine which treatment is right for you.

If you have a lingering cough or any of the other symptoms listed above, make an appointment to see your doctor and get some answers to relieve your stress and, more importantly, your symptoms.

Sources:

American Academy of Family Physicians. ​Acute Bronchitis. 2013.

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. Acute Bronchitis.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Fast Facts. Pneumococcal Disease. 2013.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. What Is Pneumonia?

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