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3 Key Differences Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

While bronchitis and pneumonia share similar signs and symptoms, there are also a few key differences that may make it easier to determine if you have one versus the other. The same infections that cause bronchitis may also cause pneumonia, making it difficult to decipher which illness is present. Determining the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia can allow you to seek effective treatment so you’re quickly on the road to recovery.

The symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia also share a few similarities of COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, chills, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and a sore throat. Just like bronchitis and pneumonia, COVID-19 can also affect your airways. It’s important to note that it is still recommended to get these symptoms evaluated by a doctor.

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a common sickness; acute bronchitis typically affects approximately ten million Americans each year and is caused by inflammation in your bronchial tube lining. Chronic bronchitis affects approximately eight million Americans each year and is caused by an airflow blockage in your lungs. Your bronchial tubes are responsible for carrying air into your lungs when you breathe. While bronchitis usually resolves itself in a few days to a few weeks, it can take longer if you have developed a severe case. Bronchitis is categorized into two types, acute bronchitis which lasts a few weeks and can go away without the use of antibiotics and chronic bronchitis which is more severe and may not go away on its own. Symptoms of bronchitis vary, ranging from chest congestion to shortness of breath, fever, body aches and a sore throat.

Bronchitis is easily spreadable. It is airborne and can be transmitted through droplets in coughs or sneezes from person to person. It can also be spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as when you shake someone’s hands or share a drink.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is also very common and affects around one million people each year. Pneumonia is a lung infection that can result in mild to severe symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, fever, sweating, chest pains and a cough that produces phlegm. The lung infection causes the air sacs in your lung to fill with fluid or pus, making it challenging to breathe and receive enough oxygen in your bloodstream.

Is it Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

Determining if you or a loved has bronchitis or pneumonia may be difficult to determine on your own. While there are similarities between the two sicknesses, there are a few key differences you should be aware of. 

Difference #1: Pneumonia is typically more severe

Between bronchitis and pneumonia, bronchitis is typically the less severe (if you have acute bronchitis). In fact, severe cases of pneumonia can be life-threatening. If you are experiencing a high fever (higher than 100.4° F) and chills, chances are you probably have pneumonia. Pneumonia can cause fevers that reach as high as 105°F. 

Difference #2: The cause of bronchitis vs. pneumonia

Bronchitis is most often caused by a virus; in fact, less than 10% of bronchitis cases are caused by a bacterial infection. In this case, bronchitis can be treated with an antibiotic. Bronchitis can also lead to pneumonia if not properly treated.

On the other hand, pneumonia can have a number of causes, such as viruses, bacteria and fungi, so it cannot always be treated with antibiotics either. It’s important to note that COVID-19 is also another common cause of pneumonia. If your doctor can determine the cause of pneumonia to be bacterial, then they can choose the right antibiotic to treat it.

Difference #3: Pneumonia typically lasts longer

Typically speaking, pneumonia can last longer than bronchitis, varying between a few weeks to even a few months while bronchitis typically lasts a few days to a few weeks. There have been numerous studies citing the longevity of symptoms that pneumonia can produce. One study surveyed 500 pneumonia patients age 50 and older and discovered that tiredness, fatigue and shortness of breath lasted more than an average of three weeks. The long recovery can be due to several factors, one being that there is still debris for your lungs to clear, including mucus, that antibiotics cannot clear up. The energy taken to expel this debris from your lungs can also be tiring and lead to more fatigue.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of bronchitis or pneumonia, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor. If you’re in Connecticut and would like to find a doctor near you, you can locate a board-certified PACT primary care physician using our searchable list here.

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