The difference between bronchitis and pneumonia can be difficult to distinguish even for doctors. While the two conditions do share many of the same symptoms, and bronchitis can lead to pneumonia if untreated, pneumonia is generally considered to be a much more dangerous condition, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
What Is Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is the inflammation or irritation of the bronchi, or the air tubes that lead from the trachea to the lungs. It is usually caused by a virus and frequently follows a cold or the flu. Bronchitis can also be caused by bacteria or fungus. Common symptoms of bronchitis include coughing with mucous, fatigue, slight fever, chills, and chest discomfort.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It can also be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. Common symptoms of pneumonia include coughing with mucous, fever, shaking and chills, and shortness of breath. Additional symptoms may include a stabbing pain in the chest, confusion, headache, excessive sweating, loss of appetite, and fatigue.
Similarities in Symptoms
Both bronchitis and pneumonia can be viral, bacterial, or fungal. They both produce a cough, can be accompanied by a fever, cause chest discomfort, and fatigue. Though similar in symptoms, there are slight differences.
Differences in Symptoms
Cough: Bronchitis usually begins with a dry cough while the cough associated with pneumonia normally produces mucus, sometimes yellow, green, or even tinged with blood, from the start. After a couple of days, coughs caused by bronchitis can also produce yellow and green mucus.
Fever: Fever is usually not present with bronchitis. If fever is present with a bronchial infection, it is usually mild, but pneumonia can produce fevers in excess of 101º F.
Rapid Heartbeat: Pneumonia can also cause rapid heartbeat, an increase in the rate of respiration, and the chills.
Duration: The symptoms of bronchitis usually disappear within two to three weeks, even without any medical intervention, while pneumonia can last more than two to three weeks.
Doctors usually diagnose bronchitis simply by listening to your symptoms and then listening to your breathing with a stethoscope. They can test any sputum you produce to ascertain whether the bronchitis is caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. They may give you an x-ray to rule out pneumonia. If you have bronchitis, your chest x-ray will appear normal, while a radiologist will be able to see evidence of pneumonia on an x-ray.
There is no curative treatment for either viral bronchitis or viral pneumonia. The symptoms can be treated to give the patient comfort and prevent further inflammation of the bronchi or lungs, but the infection has to run its course. Because the lungs take much longer to health than the bronchi, the symptoms of pneumonia can last much longer. Both bacterial bronchitis and bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics, and fungal bronchitis and fungal pneumonia can be treated with anti-fungals.
Medline Plus-US National Library of Medicine
Differences between Acute Bronchitis and Pneumonia
University of Maryland Medical Center
National Heart Blood and Lung Institute
How Is Pneumonia Treated?
Glossary of Terms
Stethoscope: An acoustical medical device used for listening to internal sounds in the body.
Sputum: Matter emanating from the respiratory tract, usually mucous or phlegm, ejected through a cough.
Quote: “Sometimes it is very difficult, even for a doctor, to tell pneumonia and bronchitis apart. The symptoms and physical examination can be identical. Sometimes a chest X-ray is the only way to tell pneumonia and bronchitis apart. There is also an entity in which both the airways and air sacs are involved with infection, and this is referred to as bronchopneumonia.”
Source: Bacterial Pneumonia eMedicineHealth
Quote: “Generally, bronchitis is a diagnosis made by exclusion of other conditions such as sinusitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and pneumonia.”
Source: Jazeela Fayyaz, DO, Senior Fellow, Department of Pulmonology, Lenox Hill Hospital
Bronchitis eMedicine from WebMD