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Is It Bronchitis or Pneumonia? How to Tell the Difference

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Created March 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Do you know the differences between bronchitis and pneumonia? They both cause bothersome coughs that can last for weeks but they have some important differences.

Bronchitis

Acute Bronchitis is inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs. It can occur after a viral illness such as the common cold or flu or occasionally it can develop on its own.

Typically bronchitis is viral, meaning that antibiotics are not helpful in treating it.

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent Cough - with or without mucus
  • Sore Throat
  • Chest Pain - worse with cough
  • Chest Congestion
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Chills
  • Body Aches

Acute bronchitis can resolve on its own within about a week but the cough may linger for weeks or even months. If you have been diagnosed with bronchitis and your symptoms worsen or change significantly, you may have developed another infection. Contact your health care provider to be reevaluated if this happens.

Typically, antibiotics are not prescribed to treat acute bronchitis because it is usually caused by a virus. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses and using them to treat a viral infection only leads to antibiotic resistance. Occasionally, bronchitis is caused by a bacteria and if your health care provider believes this is the case, she may prescribe antibiotics to treat it at that time. More often, however, treating acute bronchitis simply means finding relief from the symptoms until the illness resolves.

You may find over the counter medications helpful and you should try to rest as much as possible and increase your fluid intake as well.

Although acute bronchitis is bothersome, it is typically not as severe as pneumonia.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. People with pneumonia typically feel much worse than a person with bronchitis would. Although both illnesses can cause a painful cough, pneumonia causes other significant symptoms as well.

These may include:

  • Fever
  • Chest Pain
  • Productive Cough (may be described as a "moist" or "wet" cough as well)
  • Painful and Frequent Cough
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Chills

There are many types of pneumonia and some are more serious than others. The most common type of pneumonia in adults is bacterial pneumonia. It can cause severe illness and is a leading cause of death among Americans.

Treatment for pneumonia will depend on the cause but if you have bacterial pneumonia, you will almost always need to be treated with antibiotics. Other over the counter medications may be helpful to deal with the symptoms as well, but talk with your health care provider about which options are right for you. Getting adequate rest is essential when you have pneumonia. It is a serious illness that takes time to heal and recover from.

The CDC reports that approximately 400,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with pneumoccocal pneumonia - the most common type of pneumonia. Thousands die from it as well.

There are less severe forms of pneumonia - like walking pneumonia - that come with milder symptoms and don't always need to be treated with antibiotics. Your health care provider will determine what type of pneumonia you have based on your symptoms, a physical exam and tests.

Get the Right Diagnosis

Although bronchitis and pneumonia both cause coughs and can develop after more common illnesses such as the common cold or flu, they are significantly different. Only your health care provider can diagnose your illness and determine which treatment is right for you.

If you have a lingering cough or any of the other symptoms listed above, make an appointment to see your health care provider to get some answers.

 

Sources:

"Acute Bronchitis." FamilyDoctor.org 07/2013. American Academy of Family Physicians. 20 Mar 14.

"Acute Bronchitis." MedlinePlus 13 Mar 14. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Mar 14.

"Fast Facts." Pneumococcal Disease 6 Jun 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Mar 14.

"What Is Pnuemonia?" Explore Pneumonia. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 24 Mar 14.

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