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Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: Understanding the Difference

May 01, 2023

If you’re experiencing a lingering cough or chest pain after an illness, you might wonder whether you’re dealing with something more serious. Could it be bronchitis or pneumonia?

Quite possibly. It isn’t uncommon to develop a secondary respiratory infection, like bronchitis or pneumonia, after having another illness, like the common cold or the flu.

Shannon Burke, DO

But while these two conditions are often mentioned at the same time—and they both impact the respiratory system—they’re totally different illnesses. Read on as Shannon Burke, DO, pulmonary medicine specialist with West Tennessee Medical Group Pulmonology, explains more.

Understanding Bronchitis
Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes in the lungs become inflamed. There are two different types of bronchitis—and the one you’re probably familiar with is called “acute bronchitis.”

Acute bronchitis is short-term and usually caused by a viral infection. All of the bugs floating around at this time of year, including the common cold, the flu, RSV, and COVID-19, can all lead to bronchitis. While it’s less common, bronchitis can also sometimes be bacterial.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is long-term. It lingers for at least three months and returns for at least two years in a row. This type of bronchitis is usually a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is more commonly known as COPD.

If you have bronchitis, you may experience a number of respiratory symptoms, including a cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and wheezing. You may also have a low-grade fever and fatigue.

Because most cases of acute bronchitis are viral, an antibiotic usually will not help. Your medical provider may prescribe certain medications, like cough syrup, to alleviate your symptoms. Bronchitis will typically go away on its own within two to three weeks.

Understanding Pneumonia
Like bronchitis, pneumonia is also an infection affecting your respiratory system. But while bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes, pneumonia affects the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid.

Pneumonia can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. Treatment for the condition will depend on the underlying infection that caused the pneumonia. An antibiotic, for example, will be prescribed for bacterial pneumonia, while a fungal pneumonia will be treated with an antifungal medication.

Bacterial pneumonia can occur as a standalone illness, or it may occur after you’ve had a viral illness, like COVID-19 or the common cold. Viral pneumonia is caused by exposure to a virus, and it can increase your risk of developing bacterial pneumonia.

If you have pneumonia, you may experience a number of respiratory symptoms, including a cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort when you breathe or cough, shortness of breath, and low oxygen levels. You may also have a fever, body aches, and chills.

Mild cases of pneumonia may resolve after a week or so, but other cases may linger for up to a month or longer and require intensive medical attention.

Because symptoms of both bronchitis and pneumonia can feel similar, the only way to know for sure what you have is to be seen by a medical professional. He or she can run tests and do a thorough exam to help confirm a diagnosis and create a treatment plan.

Keeping Your Lungs Healthy
Looking to avoid both pneumonia and bronchitis? We don’t blame you! 

While you can’t prevent every viral or bacterial illness that’s going around, you can take steps to protect your lungs and your overall health. You’re probably already familiar with the basics.

First and foremost, don’t smoke. If you do smoke, talk with your medical provider about your best strategy for quitting. Your lungs will thank you.

You can also practice good hygiene to help prevent illnesses of all kinds. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time. If soap and water aren’t handy, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, applying it to hands and rubbing for the same 20 seconds you’d be washing your hands.

When you’re out and about, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. It’s a hard habit to break, we know! But germs can quickly and easily enter the body through the nose, eyes, and mouth, so your best bet is to keep your hands away from your face.

Make sure you’re up-to-date on vaccines. If you’re 65 or older, or you have underlying medical conditions, talk with your medical provider about whether you should receive the pneumonia vaccine. While there is no bronchitis vaccine, getting other vaccines, like the COVID-19 and flu vaccines, can help lower your overall risk of getting sick.

Experiencing a health issue impacting how you breathe? The expert team of pulmonology specialists at West Tennessee Medical Group is specially trained to help.