Recognizing the Differences Between Pneumonia and Chronic Bronchitis

Recognizing the Differences Between Pneumonia and Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis and pneumonia are often mistaken for each other because of the similar symptoms they cause. Both are infections that affect the lungs and can cause other similar symptoms such as fever and mucus congestion. However, there are key differences. One being that they each affect different areas of the lungs as bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes (the part of the lungs that carries air to your lungs) while pneumonia affects the alveoli (the part of your lung where oxygen passes into your blood).

Today, we’ll discuss how it’s possible to tell the difference between these infections and how to come up with an effective treatment plan.

Common Symptoms

Bronchitis and pneumonia both cause a chronic cough that is often phlegm (a thick mucus) filled and a high fever, so it’s important to understand the other symptoms of both infections.1

Symptoms of Bronchitis  

Bronchitis is an inflammatory infection in the airways that lead to your lungs. Acute bronchitis is an infection caused by viruses and other bacteria, while chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation in your lungs.

Here are the signs and symptoms for either acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis.

  1. Sore throat
  2. Fatigue
  3. Runny nose
  4. Body aches
  5. Mild headache

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Pneumonia also causes a painful cough, however, people with pneumonia typically feel much worse than those with bronchitis.

Here are the other signs and symptoms.

  1. Chest pain
  2. Shortness of breath
  3. Headache
  4. Chills
  5. Fatigue

Key Differences

As stated, pneumonia symptoms are much more severe – a high fever and constant chills is a likely sign that it’s not bronchitis.

Causes and Triggers

Pneumonia is caused by an infection, while chronic bronchitis is cause by a lung irritation. While they both affect the lungs, they affect different areas.

Causes of Bronchitis

While acute and chronic bronchitis have similar symptoms, chronic bronchitis is often caused by exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, toxic gases, and dust, and acute bronchitis usually results from a virus. According to the American Lung Association, less than 10 percent of cases is caused by a bacterial infection.2

Causes of Pneumonia

According to Mayo Clinic, pneumonia is often the result of a bacterial or viral infection caused by exposure to germs.3 Usually the body can prevent germs from infecting the lungs, however, sometimes germs can severely impact the immune system, especially for high-risk people such as young children, older adults and people with chronic medical issues or who live in a nursing home.

There are a several types of pneumonia that are caused by different factors.

  1. Bacterial pneumonia: caused by a bacterial infection
  2. Viral pneumonia: caused by a virus, such as the influenza virus
  3. Mycoplasma pneumonia: caused by bacterium that attaches itself to lung tissue
  4. Fungal pneumonia: caused by a fungi infection, such as pneumocystis jiroveci

Key Differences

The key difference between pneumonia and bronchitis is that bronchitis is caused by exposure to irritants that effect the bronchial tubes of the lungs, while pneumonia happens when a bacterial or virus infection affects the small air sacs of the lungs.


Treatments for bronchitis and pneumonia will depend on the underlying cause of the infection – whether it’s bacterial, viral, or caused by irritants.

Treatments for Bronchitis

Treatments include the following.

  1. Bronchodilator: a type of medicine that helps to open the airways and clear mucus making it easier to breath; the medicine is taken using an inhaler
  2. Theophylline: an oral medication that helps to relax the airway muscles
  3. Steroids: Prescribed by a doctor if symptoms don’t improve; they are taken through an inhaler or orally
  4. Pulmonary rehabilitation program: a doctor might recommend enrolling in this program, which offers exercise, nutritional, and breathing techniques to help improve a person’s overall well-being4

Treatments for Pneumonia

According to the American Lung Association, treatment for pneumonia will depend on the severity of the case. However, the overall goal is to cure the infection and prevent long term complications. Often times, a patient can be treated at home. Best to follow these instructions.

  1. Drink plenty of fluids and rest
  2. Control fever with aspirin or acetaminophen
  3. Do not take cough medicine without consulting a doctor
  4. Take antibiotics as prescribed5

When to See a Doctor

Bronchitis and pneumonia can cause serious health problem – so it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor if symptoms appear. A doctor will be able to determine if the underlying cause is bacterial, viral, or caused by irritants. If the cause is bacterial, symptoms should go away within a day or two of starting antibiotics.6

Talk to a doctor if the cough or wheezing doesn’t improve within two weeks. However, seek immediate medical care for the following.

  1. Fever over 4°F
  2. Blood in phlegm
  3. Shortness of breath
  4. Extreme fatigue
  5. Chest Pains