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Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

Coughs help your body clear your airways of irritants and prevent infection. But a deep cough from your chest may signal bronchitis or pneumonia. Although they may have different underlying causes, their symptoms can be similar—and both can be serious. Bronchitis and pneumonia both involve inflammation in the chest. Both can cause coughs that bring up phlegm to help clear out germs and pus. And both can cause shortness of breath and wheezing.


Bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes become inflamed. Viruses, bacteria and even toxins like tobacco smoke can inflame the bronchial tubes. Most of the time, though, bronchitis is caused by an infection with one of several types of viruses. If you develop bronchitis during flu season, a likely culprit may be the flu virus. Cold viruses are also common causes at this and other times of the year.

An infection of the lungs causes pneumonia. About 1/3 of cases are caused by viruses, but most of them are bacterial-related. They’re from quite common bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the leading cause of bacterial cases of pneumonia.


If you get a fever with bronchitis, it is usually mild (below 101⁰). In more severe cases, you may have chest pain, feel short of breath or wheeze when you breathe in. On the other hand, pneumonia is typically associated with fever, sometimes very high, spiking fever. Breathing problems, chest pain and other symptoms also tend to be more severe with pneumonia.


Whichever illness you have, resting and fluids are important ways to care for yourself. For bronchitis, your provider probably won’t give you antibiotics. If you’re wheezing, you may be given medicine to open your airways. Because bacteria are often the cause of pneumonia, your provider may prescribe antibiotics.

Germs that cause colds, the flu and lower airway infections are contagious. The best way to prevent getting bronchitis or pneumonia is to avoid getting these infections. And when you’re sick, take care not to spread your germs to others.

Contact the clinic if you have a fever and chills, trouble breathing, or a cough that is bringing up thick phlegm—especially if it’s yellow or green. Your healthcare provider can listen to your lungs. If you have pneumonia, your provider may hear bubbling, crackling or rumbling sounds. A chest X-ray is the best way to diagnose pneumonia and rule out bronchitis.

Source: National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Dr Leo Bronston

Author Dr Leo Bronston

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