Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes in the lungs, while pneumonia causes inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs, which doctors call the alveoli.
Both infections affect breathing and can cause intense pain and coughing, but there are some important differences between them.
Read on to learn more about the differences in symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and how to treat both conditions.
Acute bronchitis, the infectious form of which affects most people with the disease, is only very rarely fatal. Chronic bronchitis, however, can slowly destroy lung function and may become life threatening.
Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air from the trachea, or windpipe, into and through the lungs.
Acute bronchitis has distinct forms that vary, depending on the causes:
- Viral bronchitis: Viral infections cause most cases of bronchitis. A person may develop a cough or trouble breathing after a virus, such as the common cold or flu.
- Bacterial bronchitis: Bacterial infections can also cause bronchitis. A person may suddenly develop breathing difficulties or notice breathing problems following another illness.
- Fungal infections occasionally cause bronchitis.
- Other causes: Besides infection, exposure to substances that irritate the lungs, such as tobacco smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution can also cause bronchitis.
Chronic bronchitis causes ongoing inflammation of the airways. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The symptoms of bronchitis are similar, regardless of which type causes the disease. However, chronic bronchitis does not go away, although symptoms can wax and wane.
Viral and bacterial bronchitis typically last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Some symptoms include:
- severe coughing, often producing mucus
- clear, green, or yellow mucus
- fever or chills
- wheezing or trouble breathing, especially when lying down
- feelings of fullness or tightness in the chest
- sore throat
Since most cases of acute bronchitis are viral, they will not respond to antibiotics.
The following treatment options may help:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- over-the-counter pain relievers
- cough medication
A humidifier can also ease coughing at night. When a bacterial infection causes bronchitis, a doctor may recommend antibiotics.
Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is not curable. However, a number of interventions can help a person breathe more easily.
Some doctors might recommend inhalers, oxygen, pulmonary rehabilitation therapy, or other medications to help reduce inflammation in the airways.
Both acute and chronic bronchitis are more common in people who smoke. Quitting smoking can reduce the risk of bronchitis and prevent further damage to the airways.
Chronic bronchitis can lead to serious complications, including death from heart or lung damage. Over time, a person's body may not be able to get enough oxygen from the blood, damaging organs and potentially causing other illnesses.
Chronic bronchitis also greatly increases the risk of pneumonia and can make it more difficult for a person's body to fight pneumonia.
Acute bronchitis does not usually cause serious complications. However, in a person with a weak immune system, it may lead to other infections, including pneumonia and sepsis.
Chronic lower respiratory diseases, including bronchitis, claimed 160,201 lives in the United States in 2016.
Pneumonia is a very serious health condition and can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. In 2017, there were 49,157 deaths from pneumonia in the U.S.
People with chronic medical conditions may repeatedly get pneumonia. Many people develop pneumonia after a viral infection. It is also possible to get pneumonia after bronchitis.
Some vaccinations can reduce the risk of pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccination, for example, can help prevent pneumococcal pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is common among older people and those with weakened immune systems.
The symptoms of pneumonia are very similar to those of bronchitis. They include:
- severe coughing, producing mucus
- yellow, green, or blood tinged mucus
- shortness of breath
- chest pain that may feel sharp or stabbing
- fatigue and low energy
- sore throat
Some symptoms that may help distinguish pneumonia from bronchitis include:
- confusion in some people, especially seniors
- rapid, shallow breathing instead of wheezing
- nausea and vomiting, particularly in children and babies
- loss of appetite
- chills and muscle aches
The best form of treatment for pneumonia depends on the type of pneumonia a person has. Antibiotics can treat bacterial pneumonia, and antifungals can treat fungal pneumonia, but there is no specific treatment for viral forms.
Some other strategies that may help include:
- taking pain relievers to reduce pain and control a person's fever
- drinking plenty of fluids
- getting lots of rest
- using a humidifier or steam to help loosen mucus
- avoiding smoking
While some people find relief from cough medicine, coughing is an important way for the body to get rid of infections. An individual should talk to a doctor before using cough medicine.
Some people with pneumonia may need supportive care in the hospital. Intravenous fluids and medication for other symptoms, such as high fever, may help a person to recover faster.
Pneumonia ranges in severity from relatively mild to life threatening when breathing becomes very difficult. It is more dangerous in babies, young children, seniors, and people with other illnesses.
Pneumonia can decrease blood oxygen and damage the organs. People with pneumonia may die from respiratory failure, shock, sepsis, and lung abscesses.
How do people confuse bronchitis and pneumonia?
The same infections that cause bronchitis may also cause pneumonia. Moreover, chronic bronchitis is a risk factor for developing pneumonia and other serious infections.
A person with a previous diagnosis of one type of infection may still develop another infection. It is crucial to watch out for changing or worsening symptoms.
The symptoms of the two diseases are virtually indistinguishable to most people. Only a doctor can conclusively diagnose the cause of breathing difficulties.
When to see a doctor
Both bronchitis and pneumonia can be severe and life threatening. It is important not to self-diagnose either condition and take all breathing symptoms seriously.
People should see a doctor if:
- they have difficulty breathing
- it feels impossible to stop coughing
- they have a very high fever
- symptoms of pneumonia or bronchitis do not get better with treatment, or symptoms get better and then return
- they have another chronic illness and breathing difficulties
- a baby or young child gasps for air, has irregular breathing, or cannot catch their breath
Breathing issues can quickly worsen. If a doctor is unable to see a person with suspected bronchitis or pneumonia within a day, a person must go to the emergency room or seek urgent care.
Bronchitis and pneumonia are both highly treatable, especially when a person seeks treatment as soon as symptoms appear.
Both conditions have very similar symptoms, which is why people often confuse these diseases. In most cases, a person will not be able to tell the difference without a diagnosis from a doctor or other healthcare professional.
Prompt medical care can save lives, prevent lost time with family and friends, and help people get back to their normal life, as soon as possible.