The symptoms and effects of both bronchitis and pneumonia can be quite similar to some degree, and in milder cases, it is not always easy for the layman to tell the difference. The same is true with bronchitis as opposed to asthma, bronchiolitis, COPD, and for that matter the common cold.
While the focus here is on the inflammation of the bronchi vs. the inflammation of the lungs, these other diseases will be touched upon as well, as not only are there similarities and differences but also one can sometimes lead to another.
If you have a contracted a disease that affects your throat, your bronchial passages, or your lungs, it can be helpful to be able to understand the symptoms, so you’ll have some indication as to when it might be time to seek medical attention or advice.
Acute Bronchitis and Chronic Bronchitis
To understand the difference between bronchitis and another disease that may have similar symptoms, it will be helpful to have some knowledge as to what bronchial inflammation is, what causes it, what the symptoms are, and how it can be treated. There are two types of this inflammatory condition: acute and chronic.
The acute type is very common, whereas the chronic one is less common but can be much more serious. There is no fine dividing line between the chronic and acute forms of the disease. You may have several bouts of acute bronchitis during the course of a year, but that does not always mean the condition has become chronic. The chronic type is something your doctor often needs to define, as the condition can vary from person to person.
A case of acute bronchitis may only last a week or so although you may feel the aftereffects, primarily coughing, for several weeks after the condition has begun to clear up. A bronchitis that is chronic on the other hand may last for three months or more, during which time you may be coughing up sputum more or less on a daily basis.
If you experience these lengthy bouts over a period of two consecutive years, you have, by one definition at least, chronic bronchitis, assuming of course the disorder you’re experiencing is bronchial tube inflammation and not some other disease.
Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and can be quite serious as it brings with it a risk of the one or both lungs becoming infected and also increases the risk of lung cancer. Acute bronchitis on the other hand is generally a temporary condition, usually brought upon by a viral infection. Chronic bronchitis usually requires medical attention. The acute type may require medical intervention at times, but in most cases, it does not.
Acute or chronic, bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, the passages that carry air to and from your lungs. It is usually caused by either an irritant such as pollution or an infection, most often a viral infection that starts out as a common cold. The most common cause of chronic-type bronchial tube inflammation is smoking.
The most common symptom of either bronchitis type is a cough, usually accompanied by the presence of sputum (mucus). This type of cough, a wet cough, is generally looked upon as a positive thing as it keeps your air passages open and removes excess mucus, which may itself be infected. Once the infection has played out, the cough tends to linger on since the bronchial tubes have become irritated and require some time to completely heal.
Fatigue is another symptom and is most likely to be experienced when bronchitis is the result of an infection. Sustained coughing can also bring on fatigue. Fever or chills may be experienced although when you do run a fever, it is usually under 100.4º F. If it is more, you should see your doctor. Another symptom occasionally experienced is chest discomfort.
Pneumonia: A Pulmonary Disease
Whereas the inflammation affects one’s bronchial tubes or air passages and a related condition, bronchiolitis, affects the smaller air passages in the lungs, the bronchioles, pneumonia affects the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs that transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream.
The danger that lies in severe cases of pneumonia is that the oxygen supply to the bloodstream and therefore to all the organs and tissues in the body can become severely compromised. Pneumonia can be fatal in some cases, especially to those who are in a weakened condition or have a weakened immune system.
Pneumonia can be a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. There are also several types of pneumonia called idiopathic interstitial or noninfectious pneumonia, which consists of a class of diseases that primarily affect the tissue and space around the air sacs in the lungs. These diseases are called idiopathic in that their cause is generally not known. Parasites and some medications can also be a cause of pneumonia.
In the case of bacterial pneumonia, it is most often a case of bacteria that are found in the back of the throat having worked their way down through the air passages and into the lungs. Fortunately, the bacteria that normally reside in the back of the throat are seldom infectious.
Viruses can enter the lungs through the air passages if they are inhaled or find their way into the mouth and also enter through the bloodstream. When they do find their way into the lungs, viruses generally invade the cells surrounding the alveoli.
One of the dangers of a viral infection is that it can weaken the immune system and, in doing so, can make the body more susceptible to bacterial infections. An instance of pneumonia in which both bacterial and viral infections are present is not very unusual.
Bronchitis vs. Asthma
There can at times be a close relationship between asthma and bronchitis. There is in fact an asthmatic condition known as bronchial asthma. The symptoms of the two disorders can be quite similar since they often consist mainly of wheezing or coughing. One major difference is that while the latter can cause a fever to develop, asthma does not.
The most disturbing feature of the connection between these two diseases is that either one can bring about episodes of the other. A person who has asthma is often at a higher risk of developing bronchitis, while bronchitis in turn increases the risk of an asthmatic attack.
If you have both asthma and chronic bronchitis, your condition will very likely need to be monitored by a medical practitioner. If you’re also a smoker, that will definitely be the case. Smoking not only is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis but also is the chief cause of bronchial asthma.
Bronchitis vs. Bronchiolitis
Bronchitis and bronchiolitis have similar sounding names and both are respiratory diseases, but they are not the same thing. The former is an inflammation of the lining of the larger bronchial tubes or air passages that lead to the lungs.
The latter is an inflammation of the bronchioles, the small air passages within the lungs themselves. Bronchiolitis is usually caused by a virus and is a very common disease that primarily affects infants aged two and under. Without active treatment, most cases of bronchiolitis usually last for about two weeks.
When treatment is called for, it is usually the symptoms that are treated and the focus of the treatment is usually on making the infant as comfortable as possible. There are occasionally instances where bronchiolitis may be severe enough to require an infant to be hospitalized.
Bronchitis vs. COPD and Emphysema
As touched upon earlier, chronic bronchitis is one of two forms of COPD, the other being emphysema. There is no connection between acute bronchitis and COPD except if one has COPD, an attack of acute bronchitis would likely be more severe. The primary cause of chronic bronchitis and emphysema is smoking.
Bronchitis vs. the Common Cold
The symptoms of a mild case of bronchitis and of the common cold can be quite similar in many cases. One type of virus, the rhinovirus, can be responsible for either disorder. Other types of virus can cause one, but not both types of disorders.
Bacteria are sometimes a cause of bronchial tube inflammation, although not a particularly common cause. A major difference between the two disorders is that it is the bronchial tubes that become infected in the case of bronchitis, whereas with the common cold, the infected area is primarily in the back of the throat.
On some occasions where a rhinovirus is the cause of a common cold, it can spread to the airway passages, possibly resulting in air passage inflammation.
Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: Detailed Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prognosis
Both bronchitis and pneumonia are diseases of the lower respiratory tract. The former however affects only the bronchial tubes, while the latter directly affects the lung. Of the two, pneumonia tends to be the most serious since the affected person’s ability to breathe can be compromised, a factor that is not usually the case with bronchial tube inflammation, or at least with acute bronchitis.
While the inflammation of the bronchial tubes can at times make breathing difficult, pneumonia will usually affect a person’s ability to breathe much more severely. In addition, a fever caused by bronchitis is usually mild, whereas a fever due to pneumonia can at times become dangerously high.
The fact that there are a few similarities between the two in terms of symptoms can potentially lead to problems. Bronchitis is much more common than pneumonia and generally easier to diagnose. This can sometimes lead to a quick diagnosis of bronchitis where the actual disorder is that of pneumonia. If a fever is not present, pneumonia can usually be ruled out although there are cases, especially among older adults, where the initial symptom of pneumonia is a cough, which can sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis.
Pneumonia is most often caused by a bacterial infection, although it is very usual for a virus to be the cause. A virus is in fact usually the cause if a case of flu has been allowed to develop into pneumonia. Bronchial tube inflammation on the other hand is usually caused by a virus. Both diseases can be caused by irritations and pollutants.
When coughing is experienced in cases of bronchitis, the cough may be a dry cough at first but will generally become a productive, wet cough in a short time. When pneumonia is caused by a virus, the cough produced will normally be a dry cough, but in those cases where bacteria are to blame, the cough will usually be a wet cough.
When sputum is coughed up, its color is not always a reliable indication as to whether the disorder is bronchitis or pneumonia. If a fever is present, it is most apt to be mild in the case of bronchial tube inflammation and more pronounced in the case of pneumonia.
A sputum test is sometimes sufficient to tell which disorder a patient is experiencing and can at least tell if the infection is due to bacteria or to a virus. A chest x-ray is often the best way to verify the presence of pneumonia. Blood tests can also determine whether the infection is viral or bacterial.
A bacterial infection, whether it is in the bronchial tubes or in the lungs, can be treated with antibiotics. In the case of a viral infection, an infection in the bronchial tubes will usually be allowed to run its course.
An exception would be when chronic bronchitis is involved where the patient may need medication or some other treatment to assist breathing. When pneumonia has been found to have been caused by a viral infection, it is not always wise to allow the infection to run its course and the use of antiviral medication and other forms of treatment will usually be resorted to.