Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and acute bronchitis both cause lung irritation and inflammation. They can trigger similar symptoms, including coughing, chest pain, and fatigue.

Acute bronchitis is typically caused by a virus or, less frequently, bacteria. It’s an infection that will clear up after a few weeks.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), on the other hand, is chronic, which means it develops over time. While symptoms may improve, they’ll never disappear completely. COPD includes chronic bronchitis, a long-term form of bronchitis.

Here, we compare COPD and acute bronchitis symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Both COPD and acute bronchitis cause inflammation in the bronchi. The bronchi are airways that branch off from the windpipe, allowing oxygen to enter your lungs.

This inflammation can lead to symptoms such as coughing and mucus production. But COPD is more likely to make it difficult to breathe than acute bronchitis.

COPD symptoms

The most common symptoms of COPD include:

These symptoms may improve, but they don’t usually go away completely. Late stage COPD can lead to weight loss and swelling in the lower half of your body.

Acute bronchitis symptoms

Symptoms of acute bronchitis often resemble those of an upper respiratory infection and can include:

  • a cough with or without mucus
  • a sore throat
  • a stuffy or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • headaches
  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • fever or chills

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), acute bronchitis symptoms shouldn’t last longer than 3 weeks.

While COPD and acute bronchitis have different causes, the risk factors are similar.

COPD causes

COPD often develops after prolonged exposure to substances that irritate the airways and lungs, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. Many people who develop COPD are current or former smokers.

Genetic factors probably play a role in who develops COPD. In addition, people who have other lung conditions, such as a history of asthma or respiratory infections, are at risk.

Acute bronchitis causes

Acute bronchitis usually develops after a viral infection, such as:

In rare cases, it’s caused by bacteria. It’s common during flu season and is often contagious.

Like COPD, acute bronchitis is more common in people who smoke tobacco products, are exposed to air pollution, or have asthma.

Most people don’t need to see a doctor for acute bronchitis, which should go away without medical intervention.

If it doesn’t go away after 3 weeks, you should try to make an appointment with a doctor. In addition, you should consider talking with a healthcare professional if you develop bronchitis often. These are signs of a lung condition that requires treatment, such as COPD.

If you see a doctor for a persistent cough, they might start by asking you questions about your medical history and current symptoms. During the physical examination, they’ll use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs while you breathe.

A doctor might order additional tests to make a diagnosis. Some common diagnostic tests for COPD and other lung conditions include:

COPD is a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment. Acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own in time and doesn’t require long-term treatment.

COPD treatment

If you have COPD, a doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan. The goal is to ease and prevent your symptoms while also slowing the progression of the disease.

Some common treatments for COPD include:

  • medications, such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids
  • oxygen therapy
  • lifestyle changes
  • surgery (in severe cases)

Learn more about treating COPD.

Acute bronchitis treatment

Treatment for acute bronchitis typically involves home rest while the infection runs its course. To ease symptoms such as fever, chills, and pain, over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help.

Antibiotics and other prescription drugs don’t typically help with bronchitis, even when it’s caused by bacteria.

Learn more about treating acute bronchitis.

It’s not possible to prevent COPD or acute bronchitis. But you can lower your risk by taking care of your lungs. Try the following:

  • If you smoke, speak with a healthcare professional about quitting.
  • Limit your exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Check air quality recommendations before participating in outdoor activities.
  • Take steps to improve the air quality in your home.
  • Seek treatment for lung conditions such as asthma.
  • Strengthen your lungs with regular exercise.
  • Get a flu shot every year and take precautions against respiratory infections, and stay up to date on getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Lower your exposure to lung irritants in the workplace by wearing protective gear.

The following questions can help you determine whether your cough might be COPD.

Does bronchitis turn into COPD?

COPD is an umbrella term that includes chronic bronchitis. When symptoms of bronchitis don’t go away, it can be a sign of COPD.

How do I know if my cough is COPD?

A COPD cough often causes wheezing and mucus production, and although it may improve, it doesn’t really go away. You should try to talk with a doctor to find out if your cough is COPD.

What does a COPD cough sound like?

COPD is more likely to produce sounds like crackling when you inhale and high-pitched wheezing. If a doctor suspects that you have COPD, they’ll listen for these sounds with a stethoscope.

COPD is a lung condition that develops over time. It includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis and causes symptoms such as coughing, mucus production, and difficulty breathing.

Acute bronchitis occurs after you get a respiratory infection. It causes coughing, along with other symptoms that resemble a cold or the flu, such as a sore throat or fever.

A cough caused by acute bronchitis can last up to 3 weeks. If you have a cough that doesn’t go away, speak with a healthcare professional, as it could be a sign of another condition.