Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How To Tell the Difference

Feb 21, 2023
Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How To Tell the Difference
A cough is a common sign of a respiratory infection, like a cold or flu. But how do you know if it’s a sign of something more serious, such as pneumonia or bronchitis? If you have a lingering cough, here are clues it could be one of these conditions.

Respiratory conditions can be tricky to self-diagnose, because they often share similar symptoms, such as a cough. After all, a cough is how your body tries to prevent infection and clear irritants from your airways. But when you have a cough that doesn’t go away, even when a sore throat or fever has, it could be a sign of something more serious, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

People often confuse bronchitis with pneumonia. However, these conditions have significant differences and involve different parts of the lungs. On top of that, pneumonia is typically more serious and potentially life-threatening.

Our team at Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine in Algonquin, Illinois, specializes in diagnosing, preventing, and treating lung disorders

In this blog, we explain some of the differences between bronchitis and pneumonia and discuss when you might need to schedule an appointment.

Bronchitis basics

Bronchitis develops when the tubes in your lungs that carry air become inflamed. When this occurs, the airways, or bronchioles, swell and start filling with a sticky mucus. That’s when the hacking begins, and you often bring up a telltale yellow-green mucus in the process. This color is a big indicator of this type of infection.

Other signs of bronchitis include:

  • Mild fever
  • Fatigue 
  • Body aches, including a sore chest from coughing
  • A wheezing sound while breathing

Bronchitis can be either acute or chronic. With acute bronchitis, the cough often starts with a viral infection, such as a cold, and symptoms last anywhere from 10-21 days. It’s also contagious. 

Chronic bronchitis typically lasts at least three months and becomes a recurring problem. Any lung irritant can trigger these symptoms, from respiratory infections to exposure to tobacco smoke, and it’s less likely to be contagious.

Pneumonia basics

Unlike bronchitis, pneumonia inflames the tiny air sacs in part of your lung — not the airways. When these sacs, or alveoli, become inflamed, it keeps carbon dioxide and oxygen from moving between your lungs to your bloodstream.

In addition to a cough with mucus, other signs of pneumonia include:

  • Sweating, chills, and muscle pain
  • A high fever, up to 105°F
  • Sharp pain in the chest, especially when coughing or breathing deeply
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Confusion

Several types of infection can cause pneumonia, spreading through respiratory droplets in the air or on contaminated surfaces. It’s also possible to have mild cases of the condition. However, pneumonia can cause serious complications, ranging from fluid buildup in the lungs and bacteria entering the bloodstream to lung abscesses filled with pus.

When to seek medical treatment

At the end of the day, always contact a medical expert if you have bronchitis or pneumonia symptoms that don’t improve within a week or seem to continue worsening. However, people in at-risk groups should seek prompt medical attention, even if symptoms seem mild.

At-risk health groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Babies and children under age 2
  • Adults aged 65 and older
  • Those with health conditions involving the heart or lungs, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, or emphysema
  • Individuals with neurological conditions that affect swallowing, such as Parkinson’s, dementia, or stroke

After reaching a diagnosis, we can create a personalized treatment strategy to manage your symptoms and reduce your chances of complications.

Do you have a nasty cough? At Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine, we have on-site diagnostic tests that can get to the bottom of your symptoms. To get the help you need, call 815-584-0976 or book an appointment online today.