Bronchitis vs Pneumonia: Which One Is It?

In Diagnosis & Treatment by Dr. Clinton Osborn

When you catch a cold or get the flu, it usually starts off with a scratchy and itchy throat. The next thing you know, you’re coughing non-stop and grabbing for a box of tissues. Eventually, just getting up to walk feels tiresome, and all you want to do is stay in bed. 

When it comes to symptoms of coughing, sore throat, fatigue, and fever, we often think about bronchitis and pneumonia. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between both of these ailments, and it is essential to differentiate them because the treatment may be a little bit different.

Fortunately, with GuruMD on your side, we can tell you the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia as well as give you information on what to expect and how to treat it. With us, you can rest assured that you will become an expert.

What is Bronchitis?

Your bronchial tube is responsible for carrying air to your lungs. However, when there’s an agent that is causing some sort of aggravation, it can lead to severe symptoms. 

During this process, the bronchioles will swell up and you’ll feel irritation from the damage. The irritation can lead to sore throat and constant coughing. People often experience the symptoms whenever they breathe in, and while the air goes through the lungs, the slight pressure can agitate the damaged bronchial tube resulting in cough, scratchy throat, and sore throat.

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis usually lasts for a few weeks and goes away on its own. The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a viral infection. Therefore treatment is aimed towards providing supportive therapy such as hydration, rest, cough drops, and cough syrup. These treatments can help soothe the throat and decrease the symptoms and irritation. As your immune system recovers, it can slowly fight off the viral infection to help your lungs recover faster.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis usually lasts for three months to two years or even more. This is mainly caused by years of smoking due to the toxins from the cigarettes damaging the cilia and lining of the lungs. While that happens, it hinders the efficiency of the lungs from trapping and clearing dust, dirt, and debris particles from further entering into the respiratory system. 

Because of these issues, the lungs will compensate for its inefficiency by going through the process of hypertrophy in hyperplasia. This is where they start expanding and overreacting to further protect itself. When this happens, the lungs will overproduce mucus and will contract and expand even more to work harder to protect the respiratory system. 

The increased mucus and activity of the lungs can cause severe irritation, resulting in chronic cough and breathing issues.

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Causes of Bronchitis

There are various causes of bronchitis. The most common one is a viral infection, which causes acute bronchitis. Fortunately, viral infections will go away on its own. However, if the symptoms keep getting worse and have occurred for more than a week, then there is a possibility that is a bacterial infection is present. 

Bacterial infection of the bronchioles is often more severe than viral infections and requires prescription antibiotic medication to get rid of it. Usually, with a bacterial infection, you will have a purulent cough, but with a viral infection, it’s more of a dry cough. That is a common way of telling the difference between viral bronchitis and bacterial bronchitis. 

Another common cause of bronchitis is smoking, where the toxins destroy the cilia and structure of the lung. This would result in massive amounts of mucus that can irritate your respiratory system, resulting in constant cough and discomfort.

Long-term exposure to air pollution, dust, and dirt from the environment can also result in severe bronchitis. To sum it up, anything that irritates the bronchial tube, cilia, and the structural integrity of the lung can result in bronchitis.

Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis usually involve breathing problems such as chest congestion, severe cough with or without mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, body aches, fatigue, chills, runny or stuffy nose, low-grade fever, and sore throat. Even after all the symptoms are gone, the cough usually lasts for a few weeks because the bronchial tube is healing and trying to reduce the swelling processes on its own. 

We often called this residual coughing, and the best way to recover is to drink plenty of water, drink tea with (honey, ginger, and lemon), consume cough drops, and take cough syrup to soothe and alleviate the symptoms.

Treatments for Bronchitis 

If you have bronchitis, here are some treatments that may help you. Keep in mind that it can take a few weeks before you will fully recover.


It’s vital to drink lots of water when you have bronchitis. Try to aim for 8 to 12 glasses a day to help thin out your mucus and to make it easier to cough and clear it out of your system.


If you have work, then it’s best to talk to your boss about taking some time off. It’s important to let your body rest so it can recover faster. The most important part is the immune system. Resting and taking it easy can help strengthen your immune system so it can get rid of the virus.

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin can help reduce fever and any pain that you may have. Make sure to avoid giving aspirin to children because that can lead to Reye’s Syndrome, which can be very life-threatening. Long-term usage of acetaminophen can lead to liver problems, so take it easy on the pain medication.


A humidifier in your room can help loosen up the mucus so you can cough or drain it out easily. If you don’t have one, you can try a hot shower. 

Soothe Your Throat

If your throat is extremely irritated, you can purchase some cough drops or syrup to soothe your throat. If you love tea, definitely go for a chamomile tea and mix in some ginger, honey, and lemon. This combination is filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and soothing properties to help reduce the throat irritation and to fight off invaders.

Complications of Bronchitis

If the bacterial infection in bronchitis is left untreated, the infection can travel to the alveoli and result in severe pneumonia. This is where you get a high fever, purulent cough, mucus discharge, fatigue, body aches, breathing problems, and much more. Plus it can be potentially life-threatening that may require hospitalization and IV antibiotics.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the air sac that is located within the lungs. During the infectious process, the air sac would be filled with pus or fluid, resulting in severe cough, phlegm, chills, fever, and difficulty breathing. There are a variety of agents that can affect the lungs such as viruses, fungal and bacteria, but bacterial infections are the most common for pneumonia. 

Pneumonia can be mild, serious, or life-threatening. Usually, patients over age 65 or infants tend to have problems fighting off pneumonia because of their weakened or underdeveloped immune system.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can be mild or severe, but it depends on your age, overall health, and the type of infection. Mild symptoms can be very similar to a cold or flu and can last longer. 

The typical symptoms of pneumonia are chest pain, breathing problems, severe cough with phlegm, confusion or altered mental status, fatigue, fever, chills, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and shortness of breath.

Causes of Pneumonia

The most common causes of pneumonia would be a bacterial infection, like streptococcus pneumonia or mycoplasma pneumonia. Another cause could be from a fungal infection, but that is usually geared towards individuals with chronic health issues or weak immune systems. 

Viral causes usually occur during cold and flu seasons. Viruses are common in young children, but the symptoms are often milder and individuals tend to recover faster.

Diagnosing Pneumonia

When you do an online visit, your doctor will ask you questions regarding your medical history and symptoms, and they will conduct a virtual exam to check for crackles, wheezing, and breath sounds. 

After that, they will conduct additional tests such as a blood test, chest x-ray, pulse oximetry, sputum test, CT scan, and pleural fluid culture. 

The blood test is to confirm there is an infection and to identify the organisms so they will know what type of antibiotic to prescribe. Chest x-rays will help doctors diagnose pneumonia and determine the location and extent of the infection. Pulse oximetry will measure your oxygen levels in the blood. The sputum test helps pinpoint the cause of infection. 

If your pneumonia persists despite adequate treatment, then a CT scan will provide more detailed information about your lungs. Pleural fluid culture involves placing a needle between your ribs and pleural area to analyze the type of infection you may have.

Treatments for Pneumonia

Once the blood test, imaging exams, and culture reveal the type of infection you may have, then your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic treatment to get rid of pneumonia. If your symptoms don’t improve, your doctor will have to recommend a different type of antibiotic to eradicate the organism. 

You may be prescribed cough medication to soothe your throat and to thin out the mucus so you could eliminate it efficiently. Ibuprofen and Tylenol pain relievers can help reduce fever and discomfort. With all of these treatments, you can rest assured that your pneumonia will be out of your system in no time.

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When to Talk to a Doctor

If you have severe chest pain, fever that is over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and experience difficulty breathing, then definitely talk to a doctor. If you have a persistent cough with abnormal pus or phlegm, it’s an indication of a bacterial infection that requires treatment from a healthcare provider. 

Keep in mind that high-risk groups such as adults older than 65 and children younger than age 2 will have a weaker immune system and will require immediate care to ensure that the infection doesn’t escalate into something life-threatening. For these individuals, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible. 

People with any underlying health issues that can weaken their immune system or receive immune suppressant therapy or chemotherapy should also see a doctor right away.

If you feel that your symptoms are getting worse and not better, then definitely see a doctor immediately. If you need a diagnosis, treatment or guidance and information, you can talk to an online health provider at GuruMD. Doctors are available online for a consultation so that you can discuss your ailment and, when necessary, prescribe your antibiotic medication.


It can be hard to differentiate between pneumonia and bronchitis because they both share similar symptoms within the lungs. Luckily, there are clues that can help you with this dilemma. 

If you experience a severe cough, throat irritation, fatigue, and fever, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider to ensure that you are not dealing with anything serious or require antibiotics. You can go online to GuruMD to ask a doctor in the comfort of your own home for a consultation through a video chat and be prescribed medication. 

If your symptoms are moderate, then the online Doctors at GuruMD may order a chest x-ray to diagnose and monitor your progression through the treatment process. If pneumonia occurs with a child or a senior, then it’s best to have them treated aggressively to ensure positive outcomes. If your symptoms continue to progress then going to the doctor’s clinic is an option.

If the infection is with an individual who is taking an immunosuppressant drug or has an underlying condition that affects his or her immune system, they most likely need a chest x-ray in order to ensure appropriate treatment and follow up. GuruMD can conveniently order a chest x-ray making this process extremely convenient for the patient.  The immunocompromised patient often requires a chest x-ray to diagnose pneumonia and may require antibiotic medication. Either way, it’s best to seek an online provider, at GuruMD before these infections escalate any further.

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