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Is It Asthma or Bronchitis? Learn the Signs

Overview

Highlights

  1. If you have a cough with a fever, you may have bronchitis.
  2. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis and asthma may come and go. Symptoms of acute bronchitis will disappear once the infection has passed.
  3. Asthma symptoms may be triggered by things in the environment, like pollen or dust, or by exercise.

Asthma and bronchitis have similar symptoms, but different causes. In both asthma and bronchitis, the airways become inflamed. They swell up, making it harder for air to move into the lungs. As a result, less oxygen gets out to the organs and tissues. Too little oxygen causes symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and chest tightness.

Viruses or environmental factors like tobacco smoke and pollution cause bronchitis. Gene changes and environmental triggers like pollen and dust in the air cause asthma.

Here’s a look at some of the other differences between asthma and bronchitis. 

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Symptoms

Symptoms

Both asthma and bronchitis can cause these symptoms:

  • wheezing, or a whistling sound when you breathe
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • tightness in the chest
Is it bronchitis?
If you have trouble breathing, a fever, and a productive cough, or a cough that produces mucus, you may have bronchitis.

If you have bronchitis, you’ll produce a thick, goopy substance called mucus when you cough. The mucus can be clear, yellow, or green.

Acute bronchitis also causes these symptoms:

  • low fever, or a temperature of 100°F (37.7°C)-102°F (38.8°C)
  • chills
  • body aches

In acute bronchitis, the cough, chest tightness, and wheezing usually last for a few days to a few weeks until the infection clears up. Chronic bronchitis symptoms continue long-term.

Symptoms of asthma come and go. Some people may have asthma that’s triggered by certain events, such as exercise, allergies, or even your workplace.

Causes

Causes

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes asthma. It may be from a combination of genes and the environment. Genes you inherit from your parents may make your airways more sensitive to allergic triggers like smoke, pollen, and pet dander.

You’re more likely to get asthma if:

  • your parents have asthma or allergies
  • you had a lot of respiratory infections as a child
  • you have allergies or the skin condition eczema
  • you are regularly exposed to chemicals or dust at work
  • you smoke or are often around someone who smokes

Usually something in the environment sets off asthma symptoms. Asthma triggers include:

  • dust
  • mold
  • pet dander
  • pollen
  • pollution
  • smoke
  • changes in the weather
  • cockroaches
  • chemical fumes or gases at work
  • exercise
  • stress
  • colds and other infections

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is caused by a virus or bacteria. Chronic bronchitis is triggered by something in the environment, such as:

  • tobacco smoke
  • chemical fumes
  • air pollution
  • dust

These substances irritate and inflame the airways.

You’re more likely to get bronchitis if you:

  • smoke cigarettes or are exposed to tobacco smoke
  • have a weakened immune system that makes you more likely to catch infections
  • work in an industry where you’re exposed to dust and chemical fumes, like coal mining, textiles, or farming
  • are over age 45
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Diagnosis

Diagnosis

If you’re coughing or wheezing and your symptoms don’t go away, see your primary care doctor. You can also see a pulmonologist. A pulmonologist is a doctor who treats asthma and other diseases of the lungs. Your doctor will get clues from your symptoms about which condition you have.

Learn more: What is a pulmonologist? »

Your doctor will ask about your family history of allergies and asthma. Questions might include:

  • When did you first have symptoms?
  • How often do you notice symptoms?
  • What seems to trigger your symptoms?
  • What makes your symptoms better or worse?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • Have you recently been sick with a cold or the flu?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Are you exposed to chemicals, pollutants, dust, or fumes at home or work?

Your doctor will then listen to your lungs through a stethoscope. You may have one or more of these tests, which check for both asthma and bronchitis:

  • Spirometry: You blow into a device that shows how well your lungs are working.
  • Chest x-ray: This scan uses small amounts of radiation to create a picture of your lungs. A chest x-ray can look for growths in your lungs that might be causing your symptoms.
  • Sputum tests: The doctor will take a sample of the mucus you cough up from your lungs. The sputum is tested for bacteria to find out if you have an infection.

If your doctor suspects you have asthma, you might also have a methacholine challenge or bronchoprovocation test. You’ll breathe in a substance that makes your airways tighten if you have asthma. Then you’ll take a spirometry test to see how much air you can blow out of your lungs. You can also take a spirometry test after exercising or breathing in cold air.

Allergies are often the cause of asthma. You may need to see an allergist for blood and skin tests. These tests can help you learn which substances trigger your asthma, such as dust, mold, or pet dander.

Learn more: Common asthma triggers and how to avoid them »

Treatment

Treatment

Acute bronchitis usually isn’t treated with antibiotics, because it’s often caused by a virus. Antibiotics only kill bacteria. Your doctor will recommend that you rest, drink lots of fluids, and take pain relievers to ease your symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis and asthma have similar treatments. The goal with both conditions is to open up your airways and help you breathe easier.

The same medicines may be used to treat both asthma and bronchitis.

Bronchodilators are a type of medication that relaxes the muscles around the airways to open them up and ease your breathing. They can also reduce the amount of mucus your lungs produce. You breathe these medicines into your lungs through a device called an inhaler.

Short-acting bronchodilators start working within a few minutes to relieve your cough and shortness of breath when these symptoms flare up. Short acting drugs are sometimes called “rescue” or “quick-relief” drugs. Examples include:

  • albuterol (Proventil HFA, ProAir, Ventolin HFA)
  • ipratropium (Atrovent)
  • levalbuterol (Xopenex)

Long-acting bronchodilators take longer to start working, but their effects last for several hours. You take these drugs every day. Examples include:

Steroids bring down swelling in the airways. Usually you’ll breathe in steroids through an inhaler. Examples include:

If you only need steroids short-term, you might take a drug like prednisone (Rayos) in pill form.

Some medicines combine a long-acting beta agonist with a steroid. These include:

If allergies trigger your asthma or bronchitis, you may need allergy shots. These medicines help your immune system get used to the substance so you no longer have a reaction.

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Outlook

Outlook

Acute bronchitis should get better once the infection clears up. Chronic bronchitis and asthma can stick with you long term. By avoiding your triggers and taking the medicine your doctor prescribed, you can prevent symptoms and stay healthy.

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Prevention

Prevention

To prevent asthma and chronic bronchitis, avoid your triggers.

  • If you smoke, ask your doctor for methods like nicotine replacement and medicine to help you quit. Stopping smoking is one of the best ways to prevent the lung damage that causes bronchitis.
  • Stay away from pollen, dust, pollution, or chemicals that can irritate your lungs. When you have to be around these substances, wear a mask or ventilator.
  • Keep up-to-date on all your vaccines. Flu and pneumonia vaccines are especially important for protecting your lungs.
  • Get regular checkups to make sure you stay as healthy as possible.
  • If you have asthma, follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends.
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