Acute bronchitis or pneumonia - which is which?
by: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
Imagine this scenario: You are recovering from a cold or the flu, when a hacking cough develops. You think perhaps you have acute bronchitis, but then wonder whether it may be pneumonia. These two conditions may have similar symptoms, but the require different treatments – and often a diagnosis from a doctor.
Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, which are the large airway passages that lead from the mouth to the lungs. Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs themselves. Bronchitis can turn into pneumonia when the bacteria in the bronchi travel into the lungs and multiply there.
While both diseases exhibit similar symptoms of coughing and wheezing, symptoms of pneumonia are often more severe.
Symptoms of acute bronchitis usually go away in one to three weeks. They start with a dry hacking cough that develops into a cough that may bring up mucus from lungs. An infected person may have a low-grade fever and feel tired. Chest x-rays appear normal.
Symptoms of pneumonia may last longer than three weeks. With pneumonia, coughing brings up mucus that may be green, rusty or tinged with blood. A person usually have a fever higher than 101°F, increased heart rate and breathing, shaking, chills, shortness of breath and chest pain. Pneumonia will be visible on X-rays.
Your doctor will diagnose acute bronchitis based on your description of symptoms and a physical exam. He or she will use a stethoscope to listen for a rattling sound in your upper airways that typically accompanies acute bronchitis.
If you doctor suspects pneumonia, a chest X-ray may be ordered. Sometimes coughed mucus will be cultured to determine if it is bacterial and warrants treatment with antibiotics.
Acute bronchitis can most often be treated at home. Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid caffeine and alcohol. Avoid lung irritants such as cigarette smoke and dust. Get plenty of rest. Use over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve fever and body aches. Use a humidifier or take a hot shower and breath in the moist air to make it easier for you to cough out the mucus in your airways. Usually, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus; prescription antibiotics do not work to treat it.
Pneumonia caused by bacteria (bacterial pneumonia) is often treated with antibiotics. In cases of viral pneumonia, home treatment methods similar to those for acute bronchitis are used.
Acute bronchitis can develop into pneumonia. Call your doctor about your bronchitis if:
• Your cough or other symptoms worsen
• Your cough becomes so severe that it interferes with sleep or other daily activities
• You have a high fever
• You cough up mucus that is rusty or tinged in blood
• Your cough lasts longer than a week
Pneumonia can be serious for people with certain characteristics or risk factors. In some cases, it requires hospital admission. People at greater risk for needing hospitalization due to pneumonia include: the elderly, infants and people with other medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease or lung disease.
Both pneumonia and acute bronchitis are airborne diseases, meaning they spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and liquid droplets containing the virus or bacteria are released into the air and onto objects. The disease can enter your body when you breathe in the contaminated droplets or when you touch an object containing a fallen droplet and touch your eyes nose or mouth.
Frequent handwashing can help prevent pneumonia and bronchitis. Other ways to prevent these diseases include:
• Avoid cigarette smoke.
• Get vaccinated for the flu and bacterial pneumonia.
• Avoid people you know are infected.
• Drink plenty of liquids, especially water.
Finally, practice healthy lifestyle habits. Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, decrease the stress in your life and get enough sleep.
Acute bronchitis and pneumonia are characterized by similar symptoms, with the symptoms of pneumonia typically being more severe. Bronchitis can turn into pneumonia, however, so it can be serious as well. Bottom line, no one looks forward to dealing with either of these diseases. If you suspect you may have pneumonia, see your primary care physician to develop a treatment plan. The sooner the disease is treated, the more likely your chances for a full and swift recovery.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.