A man coughing

Understanding the Difference Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

Bronchitis vs Pneumonia: What's the Difference?

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both lung infections that can have similar symptoms. However, they are different conditions, and different treatments may be required. It is helpful to understand a little more about each condition to determine which one you might be experiencing. Knowing the difference between bronchitis vs pneumonia will help determine a treatment plan.

Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

Bronchitis symptoms may vary in severity and may include:

  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sore throat

Symptoms may clear up in about a week or two, although the coughing can linger longer. According to John Hopkins Medicine, acute bronchitis is usually mild and does not cause complications.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia may also vary in severity. The severity of symptoms often depends on the type of pneumonia, the person’s age, and underlying health conditions they may have.

For example, atypical or walking pneumonia causes mild symptoms. Other types of pneumonia, especially bacterial pneumonia, can have severe symptoms. Older adults, babies, and people with chronic lung disease are at an increased risk of significant symptoms.

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Coughing, which may be productive and contain green, yellow, or blood-tinged mucus
  • Fever, which ranges from low-grade to high-grade
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain, which may be stabbing or sharp
  • Chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting, which is more common in young children
  • Confusion, which is more common in older adults

With bacterial pneumonia, symptoms may develop gradually over a few days or occur suddenly within a few hours. Fever also tends to be higher with bacterial pneumonia as opposed to viral pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is also more likely to cause rapid breathing, sweating, and decreased oxygen levels.

Similarities Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

There are some similarities between bronchitis and pneumonia. For example, both conditions can affect breathing. They can both be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Some of the symptoms can be similar, such as coughing, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

Treatment for acute bronchitis and viral pneumonia may be similar. The duration of the illnesses might also mimic each other, especially in cases of walking pneumonia.

Differences Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

There are also several differences between pneumonia and bronchitis. For instance, although they are both lung diseases, they affect different structures. Bronchitis involves inflammation of the tubes that carry air to the lungs. Pneumonia affects the alveoli, which are the small air sacs in the lungs. The air sacs can become inflamed and fill up with pus or fluid from the infection.

Viruses also typically cause acute bronchitis. According to the American Lung Association, bacterial infections cause acute bronchitis is less than 10% of cases. Pneumonia can also develop due to a virus. However, bacterial infections are a common cause of pneumonia

In general, symptoms of pneumonia may be more severe than bronchitis. Although it can vary, pneumonia is also more likely to lead to complications, such as respiratory failure or sepsis than bronchitis.

Treatment for Bronchitis vs Pneumonia

Some of the treatments for bronchitis and pneumonia may be similar, but there are also several differences, depending on the type of pneumonia.

Certain home treatments are usually recommended for both pneumonia and bronchitis to promote recovery and ease symptoms and include:

  • Drinking warm beverages to loosen mucus and also open up the lungs and make breathing easier
  • Getting plenty of rest to help your body recover
  • Taking over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, to decrease fever and aches and pains
  • Avoid smoking to prevent further irritation to the lungs

Bronchitis Treatment

Specific treatment for acute bronchitis due to a virus is aimed at reducing symptoms. Usually, acute bronchitis, due to a virus, just has to run its course. In addition to the home treatments listed above, the following may also help:

Breathing treatments: Breathing treatments, including bronchodilators that open up the airway, can sometimes be helpful for people with bronchitis.

Cough medications: Coughing is useful to get rid of mucus and infection. Suppressing the cough with medications may not be recommended, but medication to ease coughing may be prescribed overnight to help you sleep better.

Pneumonia Treatment

Treatment for pneumonia typically varies depending on whether it is a bacterial or viral infection. Treatment for viral pneumonia often involves similar treatment to acute bronchitis, including breathing treatments, rest, and fluids. In some cases, antiviral medications may also be used.

In cases of bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics are usually prescribed. If symptoms become severe or if the risk of complications is high, hospitalization may be recommended. Some people may require hospital treatment that includes:

Intravenous antibiotics or fluids: If an infection is severe, intravenous medications are usually given to allow higher doses and faster treatment.

Oxygen therapy: Pneumonia can interfere with gas exchange in the lungs, which might cause decreased oxygen levels. Oxygen therapy is useful to improve hypoxia and decrease shortness of breath.

Ventilatory support: In the most severe cases, a person with pneumonia may have trouble breathing and need assistance. Ventilatory support can include being placed on a respirator until breathing improves.

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