Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/18/2020
Being sick, no matter the cause, is no fun. But the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia can be the difference between a week-long cold and a stay in the hospital.
Bronchitis and pneumonia have some things in common, and may even feel the same. A mild case of pneumonia could feel similar to a more severe case of acute bronchitis.
But knowing the difference is important, as it can significantly impact your treatment process.
Talking to a healthcare provider is the surest course of action to receive a proper diagnosis, but doing a bit of your own research doesn’t hurt.
Bronchitis is a cough caused by inflammation of the airways or bronchial tubes.There are two types of bronchitis: acute (or short-term) and chronic.
Acute bronchitis is what most people commonly call a “chest cold.”
We’ve probably all had one and remember not-so-fondly the hacking and coughing that keeps you up at night. It’s usually a viral condition — caused by a virus, not spreading via social media popularity — and often occurs after a cold or upper respiratory infection.
Yes, when a cold migrates south and settles in your lungs, there’s a good chance it’s acute bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis generally lasts a few days or weeks and may even go away without treatment.
However, it’s also worth noting that acute bronchitis can, on rare occasion, be caused by bacteria.
Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. It is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD can make it difficult to breathe and is often found in conjunction with emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritants, including things like cigarette smoke.
The most common type of pneumonia is bacterial pneumonia, which may develop suddenly and can occur with a dangerously high fever, increased breathing and pulse rate.
Viral pneumonia may happen more gradually and have symptoms similar to that of the flu: dry cough, headache, muscle aches, fever and weakness. These symptoms worsen over a few days.
A healthcare professional can diagnose pneumonia by listening to your lungs and taking chest X-rays when necessary. Your lungs may make bubbling or crackling sounds through a stethoscope. A chest X-ray can reveal inflammation and fluid, and blood tests can also check to see if your blood is carrying enough oxygen.
Some of the symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia may be similar. Both can cause:
Cough with mucus
Chest tightness or soreness
Fever and chills
Generally, however, the symptoms of bronchitis will be more mild than those related to pneumonia.
Severe symptoms more common with pneumonia include: high fever, difficulty breathing, chills, and chest pain. In some cases, people with pneumonia may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Regardless of what you think you might have, you should contact your healthcare provider if you have a fever, trouble breathing, bloody mucus when you cough, severe symptoms, or milder symptoms lasting longer than three weeks.
Unlike pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, a chest cold will likely get better on its own.
Because acute bronchitis is usually a viral infection, your healthcare provider generally won’t prescribe antibiotics to help with your symptoms.
Even so, there are medications you can take to help alleviate the symptoms.
They may recommend over-the-counter or prescription decongestants, pain relievers or cough medicines.
However, because pneumonia is an infection, it generally requires more intensive treatment. In serious cases, or if you have other underlying health conditions, you may be hospitalized.
If your pneumonia is bacterial, you’ll likely be given a prescription antibiotic.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers and other medications.
The American Lung Association cautions against taking a cough medicine before talking with your healthcare provider, as coughing can help rid the body of infection.
For both bronchitis and pneumonia, soothing at-home treatments may provide some relief. Both may benefit from using a humidifier, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting a lot of rest.
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