Is It Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on December 18, 2022
4 min read

When a cold or the flu sets in, you probably know how it’s going to unfold. It starts maybe with that scratch in the back of your throat. You start to feel run-down. Next thing you know, you’re parked in front of the television with a box of tissues.

But when it comes to bronchitis and pneumonia, it might be a little harder to know what’s going on and how to tell them apart.

Bronchitis is when your bronchial tubes, which carry air to your lungs, get infected and swollen. There are two kinds:

  • Acute bronchitis. This lasts a few weeks and usually goes away on its own.
  • Chronic bronchitis. It’s more serious, and you’re more likely to get it if you smoke. In this article, we’re looking at acute bronchitis.

Pneumonia is another infection in your lungs, but instead of the bronchial tubes, you get it in tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. It can be mild, but sometimes serious, especially for the very young, adults 65 or older, and people with weaker immune systems.

Learn more about these two conditions – see how they are alike and how they are different:

You may have various problems with breathing, such as:

  • Chest congestion, where your chest feels full or clogged
  • Coughing -- you may cough up a lot of mucus that’s clear, white, yellow, or green
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe

You may also have some of the typical cold or flu symptoms, such as:

Even after the other symptoms are gone, the cough can last for a few weeks as your bronchial tubes heal and the swelling goes down.

Call your doctor if your cough:

  • Brings up mucus that thickens or darkens in color
  • Keeps you awake at night
  • Lasts more than 3 weeks

You’ll also want to call your doctor if you have a cough and:

  • A foul-tasting fluid in our mouth (this could be reflux)
  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

Pneumonia symptoms can be mild or severe based on what causes it, your age, and your overall health. The most common symptoms are:

  • Cough (you might bring up yellow, green, or even bloody mucus)
  • Fever
  • Shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath (for some people, this happens only when they climb stairs)

You may also have:

  • Chest pain (you might get a stabbing or sharp pain that’s worse when you cough or take a deep breath)
  • Confusion (more common for adults 65 and older)
  • Run-down feeling
  • Headache
  • Heavy sweating and clammy, damp skin
  • Throwing up or feeling like you might

Call your doctor if you have a cough that won’t go away or you’re coughing up pus. Other symptoms that could spur a call:

  • Chest pain
  • Fever that stays at 102 F or higher
  • Shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath as you go about your day
  • Trouble breathing
  • Unable to keep liquids down

Most often, the same viruses that give you a cold or the flu also cause bronchitis. Sometimes though, bacteria are to blame.

In both cases, as your body fights off the germs, your bronchial tubes swell and produce more mucus. That means you have smaller openings for air to flow, which can make it harder to breathe.

Pneumonia can be caused by:

  • Bacteria
  • Certain chemicals
  • Fungi
  • Mycoplasmas, which are like bacteria and give you milder symptoms (sometimes called “walking pneumonia”)
  • Viruses (the same ones that cause colds and the flu can also give you pneumonia)

As your body fights off the germs, your lungs’ air sacs swell and may fill with fluid or pus, much like your bronchial tubes swell and fill with mucus when you have bronchitis.

Most of the time, acute bronchitis goes away on its own within a couple of weeks. If it’s bacterial, your doctor may give you antibiotics. If you have asthma, allergies, or you’re wheezing, your doctor may suggest an inhaler.

It’s best to avoid cough medicine unless your cough keeps you awake at night. Bringing up mucus actually helps you because it clears the gunk out of your lungs. Avoid giving cough medicine to children younger than 4 years. For children 4 and older, check with your doctor first.

Here are some things you can do to ease your symptoms:

  • Drink a lot of water. Eight to 12 glasses a day help thin out your mucus and makes it easier to cough it up.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin to help with pain, but avoid giving aspirin to children. You can use acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help with pain and fever.
  • Use a humidifier or try steam to loosen up the mucus; a hot shower can work well.

If it’s caused by bacteria, you’ll get an antibiotic. If it’s caused by a virus, you may get an antiviral drug. And if it’s really severe, you may need to go to the hospital, though that’s not as common.

To help ease your symptoms, you can do many of the same things as with bronchitis:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Get as much rest as you can
  • Take pain relievers for pain and fever

And again, it’s best to avoid cough medicines. In fact, there’s actually very little proof that they can help with the cough you get from pneumonia.

Pneumonia usually runs its course within a few weeks with treatment, but you may be tired for as long as a month.