The Difference Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

A young man in a denim button-down shirt coughs intensely into his hand as his eyes are closed.
Summary
  • Chronic bronchitis and pneumonia are defined as lung diseases and fall within the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) group.
  • Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, whereas pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs in the lungs.
  • Symptoms for both include shortness of breath and chest pain, but pneumonia can result in chills, fever, and body pain.
  • You can usually treat bronchitis with home remedies or over-the-counter medication, whereas to treat pneumonia, you may need to use a bronchodilator, or take steroids or antibiotics. You may also require oxygen therapy or lung rehabilitation.

Bronchitis is an infection of the main airways of the lungs (bronchi), that causes the lungs to become irritated and inflamed. According to the American Lung Association, 9 million adults had chronic bronchitis in 2018.

Rates were higher among:

  • Non-Hispanic white persons compared to other racial and ethnic groups
  • Women
  • Those aged 65 and older

Every year, about 5% of the general population reports an episode of acute bronchitis.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by chemical or environmental irritants, viruses, fungi, or bacteria. The lungs fill with fluid and make breathing difficult.

Pneumonia is the world’s leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age. There are 120 million cases of pneumonia per year in children under 5, over 10% of which (14 million) progress to severe episodes.

Key Point: What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

Chronic bronchitis and pneumonia are listed in the group of lung diseases referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a chronic lung disease that restricts airflow to and from the lungs.

Symptoms include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Mucus production
  • With COPD, less air flows through the airways — the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs — for two primary reasons:

  • The airways and air sacs in the lungs lose their ability to stretch and shrink back.
  • The walls between many of the air sacs are destroyed.

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the airways carrying air into and out of your lungs. People with bronchitis often cough up thick mucus, which can be discolored.

Bronchitis may be either acute (develops suddenly and lasts for a short time) or chronic (develops slowly and worsens over a long time). Acute bronchitis usually improves within one to two weeks without lasting effects, although the cough may linger for some time.

Acute bronchitis is common and often develops from a cold or another type of respiratory infection. Viral infections are usually the cause, and most people recover within a few weeks.

Chronic bronchitis is more serious and results in constant irritation to or inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes.

The coughing brings up mucus, and this condition is often exacerbated if you smoke cigarettes. The chemicals in cigarettes, together with the smoke, make bronchitis worse, which increases your risk of developing chronic bronchitis.

Other groups of people who are vulnerable to chronic bronchitis include:

  • Older individuals who have been exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Families who are genetically predisposed to lung disease.
  • Those who have a history of childhood respiratory disease.
  • Individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Symptoms of Bronchitis

The symptoms of acute and chronic bronchitis include:

  • Shortness of breath and wheezing
  • Low fever
  • A cough with mucus
  • A sore throat
  • Sharp chest pain

You can prevent bronchitis or make yourself less vulnerable to it if you:

  • Avoid inhaling fumes or secondhand smoke
  • Get the flu shot every year
  • Quit smoking
A man holding a cigarette toward the camera. The cigarette is broken in half as to represent quitting a smoking habit.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis

At first, bronchitis symptoms may seem similar to those of a common cold. To diagnose bronchitis, your doctor will examine you and find out more about your medical history and symptoms.

The doctor may order a blood test to see if there is an infection, or recommend a chest X-ray to see if your lungs look normal and to rule out pneumonia.

Treatment of Chronic Bronchitis

The aim of treatment for chronic bronchitis is to help you breathe better and control your symptoms.

Treatment includes:

  • Medication to clear your airways by relaxing and opening the air passages into the lungs. Bronchodilator medications come in the form of aerosol sprays, or they can be taken orally.
  • Steroids to relieve symptoms of chronic bronchitis. Over an extended period of time, however, steroids can result in unfavorable side effects, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and weakened bones.
  • Antibiotics, which help to fight respiratory infections.
  • An annual flu shot to help prevent infections.
  • Oxygen therapy to help you breathe better if you are struggling to breathe on your own.
  • Pulmonary (lung) rehabilitation to learn breathing techniques and help prevent symptoms from getting worse. Pulmonary rehabilitation includes teaching patients about healthy nutrition, and helping them to stop smoking and start exercising.

Treatment of Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own without the need for medical treatment. If, however, you develop a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

Home remedies to feel better include:

  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines such as expectorants that help loosen the mucus.
  • Taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen.
  • Drinking warm water or tea with honey.
  • Using a humidifier.

Home Remedies for Bronchitis

Ginger

Ginger has an anti-inflammatory effect against chest infection and can be taken in a number of ways, including:

  • Placing grated, fresh ginger in tea.
  • Taking ginger capsules as directed.
  • Adding it to food.
  • Chewing crystallized ginger.
A woman grates ginger into a bowl.

Garlic

A study conducted in 2020 shows that garlic inhibits the growth of viruses, suggesting that it can be used as a natural antiviral remedy for bronchitis.

Turmeric

Like garlic, turmeric also has anti-inflammatory properties. It increases antioxidant activity which helps reduce irritation and boosts your immune system. Turmeric can be used as a spice in cooking or to make pickles, and it can be added to tea. It is also available in capsule form.

Steam

Inhaling steam when you are in the bath or shower is a great way to break up mucus, helping you to expel it more easily. Make your shower as hot as you can manage and breathe in deeply through your mouth and nose.

An added benefit of the hot shower water is that it will help to relax muscles that may be tense from the constant coughing.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It causes the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, to fill up with fluid or pus. Pneumonia can be caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses.

Symptoms range from moderate to severe, and may include a cough with or without mucus, fever, chills, and breathing difficulties. The severity of pneumonia depends on what caused it, your health, and your age.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms can be mild or severe. Young children, older adults, and people who have serious health conditions are particularly at risk for developing severe pneumonia or life-threatening complications.

The symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Pain in your chest when you breathe or cough
  • Chills and fever
  • Coughing with or without mucus
  • Low oxygen levels in your blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • You may also have other symptoms such as muscle pain, extreme tiredness, a headache, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. Older adults who have pneumonia may feel weak or confused.

Diagnosis of Pneumonia

Your doctor may carry out one or more of the following tests if they suspect you have pneumonia:

  • A physical exam, to listen for abnormal sounds in the lungs and to check your breathing.
  • A test of your vital signs to check your temperature, heart and respiratory rate, and blood pressure.
  • Blood tests, to check for signs of inflammation or blood infection.
  • Sometimes, special tests are carried out to examine respiratory secretions to help diagnose certain types of infectious pneumonia.
  • A chest X-ray, which determines if you have lung inflammation, is often used for diagnosing pneumonia.
  • A CBC (complete blood count) to see if your immune system is fighting an infection.
  • A pulse oximetry test that measures how much oxygen is in your blood, since pneumonia can prevent the lungs from getting enough oxygen into your blood.
  • An arterial blood gas test to measure the oxygen levels in your blood using a blood sample from an artery, usually in your wrist.
  • A sputum test, where a sample of saliva or mucus from your cough is used to find out what germ is causing your pneumonia.
  • A blood culture test to determine what kind of germ is causing your pneumonia and to show if a bacterial infection has spread to your blood.
  • A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that checks your blood or saliva to find out which germs caused pneumonia.
  • If your treatment is not working, you may need a bronchoscopy that involves looking at the airways in your lungs.
  • Sometimes pneumonia is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to the flu or a cold.

To diagnose pneumonia, your healthcare provider will look at your medical history, examine you, and, if necessary, order diagnostic tests such as those mentioned above to help determine what type of pneumonia you have.

Treatment of Pneumonia

If your pneumonia is mild, your healthcare provider may prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to treat it at home. OTC medicines may be recommended to treat your fever and muscle pain, or help you breathe easier.

If your pneumonia is serious, you may have to go to a hospital so antibiotics and fluids can be given through an intravenous (IV) line. You may also need oxygen therapy to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood.

If your pneumonia is very severe, you may need to be put on a ventilator.

Medications that may be prescribed include:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia. Most people start to feel better after one to three days of antibiotic treatment.
  • Antiviral medicine for viral pneumonia, but it doesn’t work against every virus that causes pneumonia.
  • Antifungal for fungal pneumonia.
A woman in a bed with white linens drinks a glass of water while holding a pill in her hand.

What is the Difference Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia?

You are coughing a lot, your chest is feeling clogged, and you’re not breathing easily — do you have pneumonia or bronchitis?

Pneumonia and bronchitis have similar symptoms so it can be difficult to tell them apart based on congestion and cough alone.

However, these two conditions have different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

An important difference between them is which part of the respiratory system is affected.

  • Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs.
  • Pneumonia affects the air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli, causing them to fill with fluid or pus.

Another difference has to do with the intensity of these conditions. Pneumonia symptoms are often more severe than the symptoms of bronchitis, and pneumonia may affect other parts of the body, too — such as the muscles.

Symptoms for both conditions may include coughing, difficulty breathing, and sharp chest pain, but pneumonia may also be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Pneumonia may be accompanied by a fever and chills.

While both conditions can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and environmental irritants, pneumonia can also be caused by fungal infections and aspiration (inhaling something, like food or saliva, into your lungs).

The treatment of both of these conditions is another distinguishing factor, and depends on the cause:

Bronchitis may be treated with:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Breathing treatments
  • Antibiotics in rare cases

Pneumonia may be treated with:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antivirals
  • Antifungals

When Should I Call a Doctor?

If you feel like you have either bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s recommended that you make an appointment to see your doctor.

Be sure to call your doctor if your cough:

  • Lasts more than a few weeks.
  • Keeps you awake at night.
  • Has a barking sound and makes it hard to speak.
  • Is accompanied by sudden weight loss.
  • Causes chest pain.
  • Brings up blood or mucus that thickens or darkens.
  • Comes with a foul-tasting fluid in your mouth.
  • Leads to wheezing or shortness of breath.

Seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • You’re extremely weak.
  • You cannot stop coughing.
  • You have a very high fever.
  • You have sharp chest pain.
  • There’s blood in your phlegm.
  • You have a fever over 100.4°F (38°C) that lasts for more than a few days.

If you’re 75 or older and you have a persistent cough, check with your doctor to see whether you should have an exam.

Since both bronchitis and pneumonia can have serious consequences, do not try to self-diagnose either condition.

Where Can I Learn More About Bronchitis and Pneumonia?

If you are experiencing some of the symptoms covered in this article or you are concerned about your cough or chest pain, you can talk to a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from your home. Head over to LifeMD to make a video appointment.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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