Respiratory health

Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnoses, Treatments, and Prevention

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published on May 14, 2019 and last reviewed on Feb 19, 2020   -  6 min read



Bronchitis and pneumonia both are lung conditions and cause similar symptoms, so it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Both these illnesses affect the airways and cause cough and discomfort.

Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnoses, Treatments, and Prevention

Most people recover quickly from a cold and flu, but in some, it might lead to bronchitis or pneumonia. Bronchitis and pneumonia both are lung conditions and cause similar symptoms, so it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Both these illnesses affect the airways and cause cough and discomfort. It is crucial to differentiate between them so that proper treatment can be administered.

Can Cold or Flu Cause Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both complications of a cold and flu or more specifically complications of the upper respiratory tract infection. So get immediate medical attention if you experience the following symptoms:

  • If you have a fever of more than 101 ℉.

  • If you are still coughing after all other symptoms are gone.

  • If your phlegm is yellow or green in color or if it contains blood.

  • If you have wheezing or night sweats.

To understand the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia, I have discussed the causes, symptoms, and treatment of bronchitis and pneumonia separately.

What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are the tubes that carry air to the lungs. It can occur from viral, bacterial, or environmental causes. The two types of bronchitis are:

  1. Acute Bronchitis - The infection lasts for a few weeks and resolves on its own, and it is caused mostly by viruses and sometimes by bacteria.

  2. Chronic Bronchitis - It is usually caused by smoking. Here, the inflammation can last for several months at a time. The cough should be present for more than 3 months for it to be diagnosed as chronic bronchitis.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is the inflammation of the air sacs (alveoli) in one or both lungs. The alveoli get filled with fluid or pus and cause symptoms like cough and fever. This inflammation can be caused by viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. It can also be potentially fatal in children, older men (age above 65 years), and immunocompromised individuals. Depending on the cause, the types of pneumonia are:

  1. Bacterial Pneumonia - Pneumococcal pneumonia caused by Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria is the most common type of bacterial pneumonia.

  2. Viral Pneumonia - Can be caused by Influenza virus.

  3. Mycoplasma Pneumonia - Such pneumonia is caused by mycoplasma, which has characteristics of both viruses and bacteria.

  4. Fungal Pneumonia - Can be caused by Pneumocystis jiroveci fungus.

What Causes Bronchitis?

Usually, the virus that causes cold and flu (Influenza virus) also results in bronchitis. Sometimes, bacteria can also cause it. In both viral or bacterial infection, to fight this infection the body produces more mucus, and bronchial tubes get inflamed. This results in narrowing of the airway and makes breathing difficult.

What Causes Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, environmental chemicals, fungus, mycoplasmas, and viruses. Like bronchitis, the body produces more mucus, and the alveoli swell up as they fill with pus or fluid.

What Are the Symptoms of Bronchitis?

Both acute and chronic bronchitis causes symptoms like:

  • Persistent cough.

  • White, yellowish-gray, or green mucus production.

  • Body aches.

  • Wheezing.

  • Mild fever.

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea).

  • Chest discomfort.

  • Acute bronchitis may show symptoms similar to cold and flu, like runny nose, sore throat, and fever.

What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

The severity of the symptoms depends on the cause and your overall health. Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Cough with yellow, green, or bloody mucus production (productive cough).

  • Persistent and high fever.

  • Sharp chest pain.

  • Shaking chills.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Fatigue.

  • Clammy skin.

  • Confusion.

  • Nausea or vomiting.

How Is Bronchitis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will listen to your lungs as you breath using a stethoscope. If needed, the doctor might suggest you get the following tests done to rule out other possible causes:

  • Chest X-ray - Bronchitis usually does not show up on an X-ray, but pneumonia does.

  • Sputum test - Signs of allergies is tested, and it is also checked if your illness can be cured using antibiotics.

  • Pulmonary function test - This test checks for signs of asthma and emphysema.

How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Your doctor will listen for bubbling or crackling sound using a stethoscope, which is characteristic for pneumonia. Additionally, your doctor will suggest you get the following tests done:

  • Blood tests - To identify the organism causing the infection.

  • Chest X-ray - Used to locate and determine the extent of infection.

  • Pulse oximetry - It measures blood oxygen levels, as pneumonia prevents adequate oxygen from reaching the blood.

  • Sputum test - To know the cause of the infection.

How Is Bronchitis Treated

Acute bronchitis usually gets better without treatment in about 2 weeks. Your doctor might suggest you do the following things:

  • Medications

  1. Antibiotics - As a viral infection mostly causes bronchitis, antibiotics are not effective. But if your tests come back positive for a bacterial infection, then your doctor might prescribe antibiotics.

  2. Cough suppressants - Bronchitis patients have a persistent cough, which might disturb their sleep. So, cough medicines are given at bedtime.

  3. Anti-inflammatory - If you have COPD or asthma, your doctor might prescribe anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce the inflammation of your airway.

  • Home Remedies

    • Avoid smoking.

    • Wear a mask when you go out to protect yourself from pollution.

    • Use a humidifier, as it will relieve cough and make it easy for you to breath by loosening the mucus in the airway.

  • Therapies - Pulmonary rehabilitation (breathing exercises) is helpful for chronic bronchitis patients.

How Is Pneumonia Treated?

Depending on the severity and cause, pneumonia is usually treated by:

  • Antibiotics - Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics.

  • Analgesics and Antipyretics - For pain and fever, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin, Ibuprofen, and Paracetamol are used.

  • Cough suppressants - Cough medicine is only given in low doses to help the patient rest, as coughing helps loosen and move fluid from the lungs.

  • Home Remedies

    • Get rest even after fever and cough subside.

    • Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated.

    • Take all prescribed medicines for the recommended time even after the symptoms have gone.

How Can Bronchitis Be Prevented?

Bronchitis can be prevented by:

  • Avoiding smoking.

  • Practicing good hygiene.

  • Wash your hands before touching your face, nose, mouth, or eyes.

  • Getting gastroesophageal acid reflux disease (GERD) treated, as the acid can irritate the airway and make it more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.

How Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

Vaccines are available for bacterial pneumonia. It is recommended for the following people to get vaccinated to prevent pneumonia:

  • If you are 65 years or older.

  • If you have health conditions like diabetes or COPD.

  • If you are a smoker.

Both pneumonia and acute bronchitis can be effectively treated with rest and proper medication. You will get better in a couple of weeks, but the cough will be there for several weeks. If your cough and other symptoms are getting worse even after a week, consult a pulmonologist online. Chronic bronchitis needs long-term treatment.


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Last reviewed at:
19 Feb 2020  -  6 min read


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