You’re coughing, you’ve got a fever, and your chest feels like it’s clogged with mucus. Do you have bronchitis or pneumonia? Both are lung conditions with similar symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the difference. However, they each affect different parts of your lungs:
- Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs.
- Pneumonia affects the air sacs, called alveoli, where oxygen passes into your blood. Pneumonia causes these air sacs to fill with fluid or pus.
In addition, bronchitis comes in two forms:
- Acute bronchitis is an infection caused by viruses and sometimes bacteria.
- Chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation in your lungs.
Sometimes, bronchitis can turn into pneumonia. Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between these two conditions.
Both bronchitis and pneumonia cause a cough that sometimes produces phlegm, a thick type of mucus that’s made in your chest. You can tell the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia by checking for other symptoms.
Symptoms of bronchitis
The symptoms of bronchitis depend on whether it’s acute or chronic.
Symptoms of acute bronchitis are very similar to those of an upper respiratory infection, such as:
- sore throat
- runny nose
- stuffed nose
- body aches
- mild headache
When you cough, you might also notice that your phlegm looks green or yellow.
Acute bronchitis symptoms usually get better within a few days, but the cough can stick around for a few weeks. Learn more about how long bronchitis symptoms can last.
Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, causes a persistent cough that often lasts for at least three months. You might also feel that your cough goes through cycles of getting better and worse. When it gets worse, it’s known as a flare-up.
Additional symptoms of COPD, including chronic bronchitis, include:
- shortness of breath
- chest discomfort
Symptoms of pneumonia
Pneumonia also usually comes with a cough that sometimes produces yellow or green phlegm.
Other symptoms of pneumonia include:
- fever, which may be as high as 105°F
- shaking chills
- chest pain, especially when you breathe deeply or cough
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- shortness of breath
- confusion, especially in older adults
- blue lips from lack of oxygen
Pneumonia symptoms can range from mild to severe.
THE MAIN DIFFERENCE Pneumonia symptoms are usually more severe than those of bronchitis. If you have a high fever and chills, it’s probably pneumonia.
Acute bronchitis and pneumonia are both caused by an infection, while chronic bronchitis is caused by lung irritation.
Causes of bronchitis
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. In less than 10 percent of cases, it’s caused by bacteria.
In both viral and bacterial bronchitis, germs enter the bronchial tubes of your lungs and cause irritation. Sometimes, a cold or other respiratory infection turns into bronchitis.
Chronic bronchitis is caused by frequent exposure to things that irritate your lungs, such as cigarette smoke, polluted air, or dust.
Causes of pneumonia
Pneumonia usually results from a virus, bacteria, or fungi. Inhaling irritants can also cause it. When these germs or irritants enter the alveoli in your lungs, you can develop pneumonia.
There are several types of pneumonia, depending on the underlying cause:
- Bacterial pneumonia is caused by bacteria. The most common type of bacterial pneumonia is called pneumococcal pneumonia, which is caused by the Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria.
- Viral pneumonia is caused by a virus, such as the influenza virus.
- Mycoplasma pneumonia is caused by tiny organisms called Mycoplasma that have characteristics for both viruses and bacteria.
- Fungal pneumonia is caused by fungi, such as Pneumocystis jiroveci.
THE MAIN DIFFERENCE Bronchitis occurs when germs or irritants make their way into your bronchial tubes. Pneumonia happens when these enter your alveoli, which are small air sacs in your lungs.
Your doctor can use the same techniques to diagnose both bronchitis and pneumonia.
To start, they’ll ask about your symptoms, including when they started and how severe they are.
Depending on your symptoms, they may do some additional testing, such as:
- Sputum culture. This involves taking a sample of the phlegm you cough up and analyzing it for specific germs.
- Chest X-rays. These can help your doctor see where the infection is in your lungs, which can help them distinguish between bronchitis and pneumonia.
- Pulse oximetry. For this test, your doctor attaches a clip to your finger to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood.
- Pulmonary function tests. In this test, your doctor has you blow into a device called a spirometer, which measures how much air your lungs can hold and how forcefully you can blow that air out.
Treatments for both bronchitis and pneumonia depend on the underlying cause, such as whether it’s bacterial or viral.
Bacterial pneumonia and acute bronchitis are both treated with antibiotics. For viral cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug. However, they’ll likely suggest you get a few days of rest and drink plenty of fluids while you recover.
If you have chronic bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe a breathing treatment or steroid drug that you inhale into your lungs. The medicine helps to reduce inflammation and clear mucus from your lungs.
For more severe cases, your doctor might also prescribe supplemental oxygen to help you breathe. It’s also important to avoid smoking or exposure to the substance that caused your bronchitis.
Regardless of the cause, follow these tips to speed up your healing time:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids to loosen up the mucus in your lungs. Water, clear juices, or broths are the best choices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can be dehydrating.
- Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory to reduce a fever and soothe body aches.
- Turn on a humidifier to loosen up the mucus in your lungs.
- Ask your doctor about using an over-the-counter cough remedy if your cough is keeping you up at night or making it hard to sleep.
If you feel like you have either bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor. If the underlying cause is bacterial, you should start feeling much better within a day or two of starting antibiotics.
Otherwise, call your doctor if your cough or wheezing doesn’t improve after two weeks.
You should also seek immediate medical care if you notice:
- blood in your phlegm
- a fever over 100.4°F that lasts for more than a week
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- extreme weakness
Pneumonia and acute bronchitis are usually short-lived infections. You can often treat them yourself at home, and they should get better within a week or two. However, you might have a lingering cough for several weeks.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that requires ongoing treatment. If your symptoms are severe or they don’t go away after a couple of weeks, see your doctor for treatment.