The Differences between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

Respiratory infections like a cold or the flu are common, but when these infections make it to the lungs they cause illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Learn the key differences between these two illnesses in this article.
The Differences between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

Last update: 14 August, 2021

Bronchitis and pneumonia are lower respiratory tract infections. However, it isn’t easy to differentiate between bronchitis and pneumonia, as they both have the same symptoms and are even caused by the same bacteria.

The lower respiratory tract is the airway inside the thorax and starts from the trachea (windpipe). They include the trachea, the bronchi, and the alveoli. These latter ones are the smallest units of the lung where gas exchange takes place.

Today’s article will explain the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia, their main symptoms and causes, and how they affect the respiratory system.

What’s bronchitis?

This is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes. This inflammation can be due to viruses, bacteria, and even tobacco smoke. There are two types of bronchitis:

Acute bronchitis

The symptoms usually last less than three weeks at the most. It all starts because the bronchi come into direct contact with a virus or a physical-chemical agent, such as dust or allergens.

The body, to defend itself against this invasion, recruits inflammatory cells the same that release cytokines. These substances control the defense by acting against the bronchial cells.

There’s mucus and edema in acute bronchitis and they lead to coughing, difficulty breathing, and even low fever.

A man with bronchitis.
Coughing is one of the symptoms of bronchitis; the body uses it to expel mucus.

Chronic bronchitis

This is when the bronchi remain inflamed. Also, the bronchial mucous membranes swell and produce more mucus and shortness of breath.

The main symptom is a continuous cough that lasts for several months, usually repeated for two or more consecutive years. This cough is often due to mucus production. However, chronic bronchitis may flare up and manifest as acute bronchitis.

Unlike acute bronchitis, the most common causative agents of chronic bronchitis are usually smoking, asthma and allergies. Usually, this type of bronchitis is part of a more serious condition we know by the name of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What’s pneumonia?

This is an infection of the alveoli (the lungs) and comes with an inflammatory response. There are different causes of pneumonia, but this article will discuss the infectious kind acquired either in the community or outside a hospital.

The oral cavity is full of microbiota that can enter the lung through microaspirations — the passage of the contents of the mouth into the airway. These microaspirations are normal, especially when we’re asleep. Furthermore, the body has defense systems such as coughing to keep these bacteria and viruses from reaching the lungs.

There are times in which the lungs and defense mechanisms are overwhelmed and cannot eliminate all microorganisms. This is when the alveoli fill up with them. We can catch them from our environment and the people around us.

Typical pneumonia

The main symptoms here are high fever, chills, wet cough (cough with mucus), and pain in one side of the chest. This type of pneumonia is usually caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus. It’s the most common type of pneumonia.

Atypical pneumonia

This type of pneumonia is less symptomatic but more chronic. The cough isn’t wet like the previous one, but rather dry, or there may be an absence of coughing. In addition, there’s muscle pain, joint pain, diarrhea, and fever. The latter is occasional though.

A physician checking for pneumonia.
There are two types of pneumonia: typical and atypical. Their symptoms are different.

The differences between bronchitis and pneumonia

Indeed, the symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia seem to be similar, although they affect different sections of the airway. Bronchitis targets the bronchi and, pneumonia, the alveoli. Some signs can help differentiate them.

Bronchitis, especially acute bronchitis, is self-limiting, and rest and medication to control fever and cough are usually enough. It doesn’t require antibiotics since, as we mentioned above, it’s usually a complication of a cold or the flu.

Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, must happen when the bronchitis is chronic. In some cases, the physician may prescribe oxygen to help the patient breathe better. It must be monitored by a specialist.

In contrast, pneumonia is much more serious and requires professional treatment to prescribe complementary methods. Hospital admission may be required, depending on the severity.

Viral pneumonia doesn’t require antibiotics, only supportive treatment. However, physicians do prescribe them for bacterial pneumonia.

Prevention of bronchitis and pneumonia

The best thing to do to prevent bronchitis and pneumonia is to quit smoking and stay away from smokers. This is because tobacco damages the lung cells and makes them more susceptible to these infections.

In addition, some doctors recommend the flu vaccine every year for those in high-risk groups: over 65 years old, pregnant, and people with a chronic disease.

The symptoms of pneumonia are similar to those of bronchitis. Thus, consult a doctor if your chest hurts and there’s shortness of breath.

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