Pneumonia vs Bronchitis: How to Tell the Difference

Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on October 30th, 2019

older woman coughing

You’re on the mend! And the prospect of escaping your bed for the first time in weeks is too good to ignore. But then, you feel the dangerous twinge of something threaten your speedy recovery. Your throat is coated in mucus, and your body is weighed down with fever and fatigue. Wheezing and a tight chest give way to shortness of breath, and you find yourself sick in bed once more. 

What happened? It can be hard to distinguish the symptoms of an everlasting cold—especially without a professional diagnosis. But, if you experience these symptoms following an illness, then you may have a respiratory infection. Respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, often share similar symptoms—this can make them difficult to identify. In this article, we’ll help you understand the differences between these two respiratory infections and when to seek treatment.  

Spotting the Difference

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both respiratory infections that affect the lungs, sharing symptoms of what can feel like a serious chest cold or the flu. While similar, bronchitis and pneumonia are two completely separate respiratory conditions that range in severity and progress in different ways—typically requiring specialized treatment in severe instances. If you’re in immediate pain or discomfort, you should promptly seek medical assistance and diagnosis. 

Bronchitis

Bronchitis occurs when the lining of your bronchial tubes, the respiratory passage that moves air to and from your lungs, becomes inflamed. This irritation is usually prompted by a virus or by breathing in common lung irritants such as:

  • Fumes
  • Dust
  • Air pollutants, like cigarette smoke

When inflamed, these tubes can swell—causing chest discomfort, shortness of breath, mucus discharge, and a cough. While all symptoms of bronchitis are uncomfortable, there are two forms of the ailment that can determine the severity of the condition: acute and chronic. Symptoms associated with both forms of bronchitis often include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort or rattling
  • Clear, yellow, green, or white sputum production 
  • Productive cough (with mucus production)
  • Low fever

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis, or the common chest cold, is a less severe condition. It usually improves within a week of contraction. But, following the recovery period, you may experience a lingering cough or chest pain. It is not abnormal for a dry cough to last for up to three weeks following a bout of bronchitis, but if your condition returns or your productive cough persists for more than two weeks, you may have a more severe form of bronchitis. 

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a serious condition that typically  lasts longer than three months. It’s also a form of COPD, a progressive disease that affects the lungs over time and the ability to breathe. To diagnose your condition, your healthcare provider will look for a productive cough and check the timeline of your recurring symptoms over a period of two years. Keep in mind that this condition can exacerbate existing medical conditions and is especially dangerous in those with preexisting respiratory complaints.  

Pneumonia

This respiratory infection differs from bronchitis, as it inflames the air sacs (alveoli) in one or both lungs. In serious cases, this irritation can cause the air sacs to fill with fluid—triggering coughing fits and making it difficult to breathe. Unlike bronchitis, pneumonia can be contagious and often spreads through shared bacteria. It can also range in severity, particularly for those with underlying health problems and weakened immune systems. Common symptoms include:

Atypical “Walking” Pneumonia 

Walking Pneumonia” is a non-medical term used to describe mild forms of pneumonia. While this condition doesn’t usually require immediate hospitalization, it can make you feel out of sorts—think of it as something similar to a bad head and chest cold. If your healthcare provider believes bacteria to be the cause of your “walking pneumonia,” then it can be treated with antibiotics.  

Bacterial Pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is an inflammation of the alveoli in response to a bacterial  infection. This serious form of pneumonia can become life-threatening if not treated by a medical professional, especially in those with weakened immune systems and COPD. As a bacterial infection, this form of pneumonia can be contagious and is typically carried from the nose or throat to the lungs. 

High-Risk Candidates

Bronchitis and pneumonia often develop from a cold, a respiratory infection, or comorbidity. While most acute conditions can dissipate over time with rest, chronic symptoms in those at higher risk often need more immediate and specialized care. These candidates include:

  • Seniors
  • Children
  • Those with preexisting respiratory conditions, like COPD
  • Those who have recently been hospitalized for the flu or whooping cough

Seeking Treatment

If you consider yourself a high-risk patient, then you should be proactive in seeking treatment following a cold—especially if you are showing symptoms of a respiratory infection. If your symptoms are exacerbating your COPD, then scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician may not be in your best interest. Fortunately, there’s an easier way you can receive the on-demand treatment you need; simply contact DispatchHealth. After reaching out to us via phone, app, or through our site, our emergency care providers will arrive at your doorstep within a few hours. A physician assistant or nurse practitioner and a medical technician will perform tests using most of the tools and technologies found in a typical emergency room (ER). We even accept most forms of major insurance, helping you receive the treatment you need at one-tenth the out-of-pocket cost of a traditional ER visit. 

senior house call for flu

To learn more about our on-demand medical service and how it can benefit you or a loved one, contact DispatchHealth today! 

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.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355566
  2. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/acute-bronchitis/learn-about-acute-bronchitis.html
  3. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/chronic-bronchitis/
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204
  5. https://www.lung.org/about-us/blog/2017/02/what-is-walking-pneumonia.html
  6. https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2017/bronchitis-and-pneumonia-symptoms.html
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