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Bronchitis vs. Upper Respiratory Infections

woman coughing

Do you know the difference between bronchitis and an upper respiratory tract infection (URI)? With all the medical jargon and complex terminology out there, it’s easy to get mixed up about these common respiratory conditions

and the arrival of COVID-19 certainly hasn’t helped to simplify things. To help clear up the confusion, let’s take a closer look at bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infections, and what sets them apart. 

The Basics of Bronchitis 

Bronchitis (chest cold) is not an upper respiratory tract infection. Rather, it affects the air-transporting tubes of the lungs (bronchioles), which are a part of the lower respiratory tract. So, bronchitis is considered a lower respiratory infection—or an infection that impacts the lungs or structures below the voice box (larynx). Other lower respiratory tract infections include pneumonia, tuberculosis, and bronchiolitis. 

Acute (short-term) bronchitis occurs when the bronchioles become inflamed and produce too much mucus. It is usually caused by a virus, although bacteria may also lead to bronchitis. Some of the most common symptoms of acute bronchitis include: 

  • Frequent coughing, with or without mucus  
  • A wheezing noise when coughing  
  • Fatigue 
  • Chest soreness, especially when coughing  
  • Sore throat 
  • Headache 
  • Mild body aches or fever   

Symptoms of acute bronchitis typically last for 10 to 14 days, although some symptoms may linger for up to three weeks. 

Treatment for acute bronchitis often involves plenty of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications to help control symptoms. Bacterial bronchitis may be treated with antibiotics. It’s also important to avoid smoking and exposure to airborne irritants while recovering from bronchitis. Individuals with symptoms that remain or worsen after three weeks should be evaluated by a medical professional. 

While acute bronchitis is a contagious short-term infection, chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that falls under the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) umbrella. It is caused by smoking tobacco in most cases, although long-term exposure to air pollution, certain chemicals, and secondhand smoke may also contribute to chronic bronchitis. 

Understanding Upper Respiratory Tract Infections 

As you may have guessed, upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) are infections that impact the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, throat, and voice box.  

Types of upper respiratory infections include:  

  • The common cold 
  • Sinusitis (sinus infection) 
  • Laryngitis  
  • Tonsillitis 
  • Epiglottitis

Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 can impact both the lower and upper respiratory tracts, although COVID-19 typically begins in the upper respiratory tract and may spread to the lower. 

Upper respiratory tract infections are caused by several types of viruses and bacteria that can travel through respiratory droplets or physical contact. These infections are incredibly widespread—in fact, the common cold is to blame for most routine doctor visits in the United States. 

The signs of a upper respiratory tract infection will vary based on what type of condition is present, but a few hallmark URI symptoms include:  

  • Sore throat  
  • Cough 
  • Nasal congestion or runny nose 
  • Post-nasal drip 
  • Sneezing  
  • Fatigue 
  • Headache 

Similar to lower respiratory infections, most upper respiratory tract infections can be treated at home by getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of water, and taking over-the-counter medications to reduce symptoms. Most infections resolve on their own within two weeks, although sinusitis may last longer. Individuals should consult with a medical professional if symptoms:

  • Worsen or do not improve with self-care methods  
  • Go away and then return 
  • Include sinus pain or a severe sore throat   
  • Include a low-grade fever that persists for more than five days 
  • Include a fever higher than 101.3 degrees fahrenheit (for adults) 

In-Home Treatment for Bronchitis, URIs & Other Common Illnesses 

No matter if you’re battling bronchitis, the common cold, or any other type of respiratory infection, you’re probably not in the mood to trek to an urgent care center or physician’s office and sit in a bustling, germ-filled waiting room. Enter: DispatchHealth. Our fully equipped medical teams offer safe, convenient, and affordable medical care to patients in the comfort of their own home. 

Ready to find relief from bothersome respiratory symptoms? If so, request a same-day visit from DispatchHealth by giving us a call, going on our website, or using our app. Our team is here to answer any questions you may have. 

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/acute-upper-respiratory-infection 
  2. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/3993-bronchitis  
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/bronchitis.html  
  4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324413  
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605
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