Bronchitis can lead to pneumonia if you don’t seek treatment. Bronchitis is an infection of the airways that lead to your lungs. Pneumonia is an infection inside one or both lungs. If bronchitis is left untreated, the infection can travel from the airways into the lungs. That can lead to pneumonia.

There are four different types of pneumonia. Each type has a different cause.

  • Bacterial pneumonia can be caused by the bacteria Streptococcus, Chlamydophila, or Legionella.
  • Viral pneumonia is usually caused by a respiratory virus.
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia is caused by organisms that are neither bacterial or viral, but that have similar qualities to both.
  • Fungal pneumonia can be caused by fungi from bird droppings or soil. You can develop it if you’re exposed to and inhale large quantities of the fungi.

A virus most commonly causes bronchitis. It’s usually the same virus that causes the common cold. Bacteria can also trigger it, but never mycoplasma organisms or fungi. This is where it differs from pneumonia in terms of cause.

Untreated viral or bacterial bronchitis can turn into viral or bacterial pneumonia.

If you have bronchitis, the best way to prevent pneumonia is to treat the condition early. Recognizing the symptoms of bronchitis can help you get treatment sooner. Early symptoms of bronchitis are similar to those of a cold or the flu. They may include:

  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
  • fever of 100°F to 100.4°F (37.7°C to 38°C)
  • feeling tired
  • back and muscle aches

You’ll then develop a dry cough which will become productive after a few days. A productive cough is one that produces mucus. The mucus may be yellow or green.

Bacterial bronchitis more commonly leads to pneumonia than viral bronchitis. That’s because the bacteria multiply and spread.

In some cases, it’s still possible to contract pneumonia even if you’re taking antibiotics to treat bronchitis. This is because antibiotics are very specifically selected for the bacteria they’re targeting. If you’re taking antibiotics for one type of bacteria, it’s still possible for pneumonia to be caused by another type.

Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics if you have bacterial bronchitis. Antibiotics can’t treat viral bronchitis or any other virus.

It’s possible for anyone to develop pneumonia following bronchitis, but certain groups of people are at greater risk. These groups typically have weakened immune systems. You may be at an increased risk for pneumonia following bronchitis if you:

  • are under the age of 2 or over the age of 65
  • have had a stroke
  • have difficulty swallowing
  • have asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, heart failure, or other chronic medical conditions
  • have very limited mobility
  • are taking medications that affect your immune system
  • are receiving treatment or therapy for cancer
  • smoke or take certain illicit drugs
  • drink alcohol to excess

It’s important to be able to differentiate between the symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia. This is because pneumonia is a much more serious condition and could be potentially life-threatening.

Bronchitis often develops following a cold and presents as a worsening of your symptoms. Symptoms of bronchitis may include:

  • coughing up clear, yellow, green, or blood-streaked phlegm
  • fever and chills
  • tightness or some pain in your chest
  • feeling lethargic

Chronic bronchitis usually lasts several weeks. Acute bronchitis doesn’t last long, but your symptoms are more severe.

It can be difficult to determine when bronchitis has developed into pneumonia since they share many of the same symptoms. But symptoms of pneumonia are more severe.

If you have symptoms of bronchitis, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. They’ll use a stethoscope to listen to your chest and lungs to determine if the infection has moved onto your lungs. They may ask you to return within a certain time period if your symptoms haven’t cleared up or if your symptoms worsen.

There are certain symptoms of severe pneumonia that bronchitis doesn’t have. If you have any of the following symptoms, seek urgent medical attention:

  • significant difficulty breathing
  • a feeling that your chest is being crushed
  • coughing up lots of blood
  • blue fingernails or lips

If you think you’re experiencing the symptoms of pneumonia, seek immediate medical attention. Like most illnesses, treatment of pneumonia is more successful the earlier it’s caught.

Untreated pneumonia can escalate quickly, so don’t delay. Even if you think your symptoms are relatively mild and might only be bronchitis, still get it checked out. Bronchitis might also require antibiotics if it’s caused by a bacterial infection.

The treatment for pneumonia depends upon the cause. Antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal drugs are all used to treat the different types of pneumonia. Your doctor may also prescribe pain medication.

Many cases of pneumonia can be treated at home with oral medications. But if your symptoms are severe or you have other health concerns, your doctor may recommend hospitalization. Your treatments in the hospital might include intravenous antibiotics, respiratory therapy, or oxygen therapy.

Bacterial bronchitis can lead to pneumonia if it’s not treated promptly. But the majority of people respond well to the treatment of pneumonia and recover.

For some people, the condition can lead to complications and worsen other health conditions they might already have. Ultimately, pneumonia can be life-threatening. See your doctor if you suspect you may have it. They can determine what’s going on and any needed next steps.