Bronchitis vs Pneumonia

Bronchitis vs Pneumonia: What's the Difference?

Bronchitis is an infection of the lungs. When the main airways or bronchial tubes become inflamed due to an infection the inner lining swells and produces extra mucus, triggering coughs as the body attempts to clear the passageways. Bronchitis can be a minor ailment, such as a prolonged cough after a viral illness like the flu, or be a serious chronic condition. While similar to other lung infections, such as pneumonia, it is distinct in that bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways that transport oxygen while pneumonia is an inflammation of the air sacs that deposit oxygen. With pneumonia, the air sacs sometimes fill with pus or fluid. Both are respiratory illnesses, but this important difference between pneumonia and bronchitis should not be overlooked. Read below to be better informed on the different causes, symptoms and treatment.

What Causes Bronchitis?

The causes of bronchitis are:

  • Viral illnesses –This is the most common and most likely cause of bronchitis, especially acute bronchitis. It is estimated to cause around 90% of all acute bronchitis cases. These include the common cold and the flu.
  • Bacterial infections – Unlike the viruses above, 99% of bacteria are good for your system and allow you to digest food, fight cancer and other life-saving functions. However, there are bacteria that when trapped in your lungs can cause an infection, resulting in bronchitis.
  • Irritants in the air – As explained further in the risk factors below, particles in the air can also lead to inflammation in the lungs and bronchitis.

In addition to these causes, there are several other factors that increase your likelihood of contracting bronchitis:

  • Weak immune system – It is harder for your body to fight off the virus or germs when your immune system is already worn down. It is very common for you to contract bronchitis after your body has worn down its immune system from fighting off a cold or flu. This also means that children, older adults and individuals with chronic conditions are especially at risk.
  • Stomach acid issues – This includes heartburn, acid reflux or GERD as stomach acid can get caught in the bronchial tubes and inflame the lungs.
  • Smoking – Smoking traps particles in the lungs that can damage and irritate the bronchial tubes, creating bronchitis.
  • Environmental factors – Any environment with airborne chemicals, large amounts of dust or other harsh conditions that allow particles into your lungs can also produce acute or chronic bronchitis.
  • History of respiratory illnesses – Emphysema, which is a disease that causes over-inflation of the lung’s air sacs  (alveoli) or asthma, which is a similar inflammation of the airways, are examples of respiratory issues that increase the likelihood of contracting bronchitis.

Can bronchitis turn into pneumonia? If you contract acute bronchitis you may be at risk for pneumonia, especially if you have any of the risk factors above. It is important to consult your doctor if you believe you may have pneumonia.

Bronchitis Symptoms

The most common symptoms of bronchitis are observed in your chest and lungs, but can be accompanied by cold or flu symptoms. These include:

  • Chest discomfort – You may feel pressure in your chest in general or certain points as your body works to clear the mucus.
  • Cough – The cough can range in frequency and severity and will most likely will bring up green, yellow, clear or white mucus.
  • Shortness of breath – This is caused by the narrowing of the airways and feeling of tightness in your chest. Bronchitis can even cause a wheezing as you breathe.
  • Fatigue – As your body works to fight off the infection, you may feel extremely tired at different points in the day.
  • Nasal Congestion – Your nasal passages may be similarly inflamed or irritated as your lungs, which results in a runny nose.
  • Sore throat – Frequent coughing and mucus can cause throat irritation.
  • Low fever and chills – A fever is your body’s natural response to an infection as it activates the immune system. However, high and prolonged fever require immediate medical attention.

Bronchitis is contagious if caused by a viral illnesses or bacterial infection. Since most cases are, it is important to take necessary precautions to not get others sick. If the bronchitis is caused by environmental factors and not an infection, then the bronchitis is not contagious.

Treatments for Bronchitis

In most cases, bronchitis goes away on its own after a couple of weeks, with the most severe symptoms lessening after the first few days. Since most cases are caused by viral infections, antibiotics for bronchitis are not needed. Thus, the treatment for bronchitis is simply rest, drink water and eat healthy meals. If it is a rare case of bronchitis caused by bacteria then a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. The most likely choices for antibiotics are amoxicillin and doxycycline with erythromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. If you have asthma or allergies and contract bronchitis a doctor may also prescribe an inhaler, which counteracts the narrowing of the airways and helps shortness of breath.

Talk to a doctor before using cough medicine. Cough medicine allows the body to be less irritated by mucus, but this inhibits the body from coughing the mucus and getting it out of your system. Over-the-counter pain medication such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with the pain and any feverish symptoms.

The treatment for bronchitis that is recurring is similar to acute cases. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis other than addressing the underlying causes, most commonly smoking and other environmental factors. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator inhaler to helps clear airways, or corticosteroids, which contain steroid hormones to decrease inflammation in the lungs. If damage to the lungs is too great, oxygen therapy may be necessary to regulate oxygen intake.

Since most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral illnesses that do not respond to antibiotics, here are some ways to lessen the symptoms as your body works to get better:

  • Sleep a lot – Rest allows the body to recuperate and ensure minimal exposure to irritants in the air. It is arguably the best home remedy for bronchitis.
  • Stay hydrated – Some doctors recommend as many as 12 glasses of water a day to help keep your immune system working and thin out the mucus.
  • Take hot showers –The steam can help loosen the mucus and clear the lungs. You can also use a humidifier.
  • Avoid dairy products – Dairy products can make mucus thicker. Contrary to popular belief, it does not make you produce more mucus.
  • Gargle warm saltwater – If you have a sore throat, gargling with warm salt water can help relieve pain associated with an inflamed throat. A recommended amount is 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon of salt for an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
  • Drink ginger, lemon, or licorice tea with honey – Ginger, lemon, and honey have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. There is some documented evidence to support that lemon can help reduce inflammation and improving blood vessel function. While not a cure-all, some studies have shown honey can treat infections and act as cough suppression. Similarly, licorice has some research to suggest it can decrease swelling, coughing, or mucus secretions.
  • Take oregano oil – Surprisingly, the same oregano oil to spice delicious meals can be helpful as a medicine. Taking a few drops by the mouth can be helpful with your cough.
  • Breathe in steam with eucalyptus oil – Eucalyptus oil can help loosen phlegm. You can add drops of the oil to boiling water and breathe in the steam. Note – Do not ingest unless recommended by your doctor and never give or apply to the skin of a child younger than 2 as it is toxic.

What Causes Pneumonia?

According to the American Lung Association, there are more than 30 unique causes of pneumonia. In most cases, however, a virus, such as influenza, or the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae, causes it. Mycoplasma pneumoniae is a bacteria that causes a milder version of pneumonia, called “walking pneumonia.”

These viruses or bacteria usually enter the body through the nose or throat and then spread to the lungs, causing an infection. They can infect a person of any age, but are particularly common with older adults, especially those in hospitals, and young children.

With bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases; many of the risk factors are similar:

  • Weak immune system
  • Smoking
  • Environmental factors
  • History of previous respiratory illnesses

Pneumonia Symptoms

Symptoms of pneumonia depend on your age and medical history, but can range from mild to severe and last from 2 to 8 weeks. Pneumonia vs bronchitis may seem very different, but many symptoms are similar such as:

  • Cough – The cough can range in frequency and severity. Most likely the cough will also bring up green, yellow, clear or white mucus.
  • Shortness of breath – This may especially occur when climbing stairs.
  • Fever and chills – For pneumonia caused by a bacterial infection, the fever can be as high as 105 F.
  • Fatigue – As your body works to fight off the infection, you may feel extremely  tired at different points in the day.

Additional symptoms that are common for pneumonia, but not for bronchitis are:

  • Stabbing chest pain – This pain feels worse when coughing or breathing deeply.
  • Clammy skin – You may also sweat excessively.
  • Confusion – This can happen to anyone, but is more common with older adults.
  • Bluish lips or nailbeds – Because pneumonia inhibits the oxygen supply in the body, the lips or nailbeds can turn blue.
  • Muscle pain – This is more common with pneumonia caused by a viral illness.

Pneumonia is contagious, but how long you are contagious depends on whether you receive treatment and the cause. Being contagious from pneumonia usually lasts a few days or up to a week.

Treatments for Pneumonia

Since there are two types of pneumonia, viral and bacterial; there are two courses of treatment. As discussed with bronchitis, antibiotics do not work for pneumonia caused by a virus. Sometimes doctors will prescribe antiviral medication for pneumonia of this type, but usually no medication is needed. Pneumonia caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics. For those who are normally healthy but contract mild pneumonia, oral macrolide antibiotics are used. These include erythromycin, azithromycin, and clarithromycin. If you have another serious illness, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, heart disease, or diabetes; a higher dose or stronger antibiotic will be used.

In both cases, most people can receive treatment at home by following the same steps as with bronchitis: lots of resting, hydration, avoiding cough medicine, and taking aspirin or anti-inflammatory medication for the pain or to reduce a fever. In some cases, the pneumonia may become severe enough to require hospital care including fluids, specialized antibiotic treatment, oxygen and breathing therapy.

Should any symptoms continue or worsen consider making an appointment with your primary care physician or seeing an urgent care in order to any changes to a treatment plan.

Doctor on phone
Shannon Chapman

Shannon Chapman

Shannon enjoys breaking down technical subjects and giving others the tools to make informed decisions. Her interests include behavioral economics, sustainable living, meditation, and healthy cooking.

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