You’re coughing, congested, and have a low grade fever. Is it bronchitis, or is it something more serious such as pneumonia? Find out how to distinguish between these two conditions.
You’re coughing constantly and lots of thick green secretions are ending up on the tissue. Plus, you have a low grade fever. You think it could be bronchitis, but are worried about a more serious condition – such as pneumonia. Bronchitis vs. pneumonia – which one is it?
Acute Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How Are They Different?
Of the two conditions, pneumonia is the more serious. Acute bronchitis involves inflammation in the bronchial passages – the large tubes that carry air into the lungs. It’s a common form of infection usually seen in the winter months and most commonly caused by a virus. It usually resolves without treatment in seven to ten days, although the cough can sometimes last much longer – sometimes several weeks or months before it completely resolves.
Pneumonia, on the other hand, the more serious of the two conditions, involves infection of the deeper lung tissue that surrounds the bronchial tubes. Pneumonia is more dangerous infection because the infection can spread into the blood vessels in the lungs and set up a blood stream infection that can spread throughout the body. In some cases, it can be fatal, particularly in people who have immune problems or who are older.
How Do the Symptoms Differ?
With acute bronchitis, the symptoms are usually mild. There may be a productive cough, mild wheezing, congestion, and a low grade fever. Rarely, does the temperature rise above 101 degrees Farenheit with simple bronchitis. In the case of pneumonia, a high fever is common and there can be more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, shaking chills, and severe muscle aches. Another condition that can be difficult to distinguish from pneumonia is seasonal influenza or flu. With seasonal influenza, it’s uncommon to have shortness of breath and chest pain, but the chills and muscle aches can be quite pronounced.
How Does a Doctor Tell the Difference?
Sometimes a doctor can get an idea whether pneumonia is present by listening to the lungs. Sounds coming from the lungs with deep inspiration known as rales are suggestive of pneumonia; but this will need to be confirmed by a chest x-ray. In bronchitis, the chest x-ray is usually normal, but will be abnormal in the case of pneumonia.
How Does Treatment Differ?
Because acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, antibiotics are usually not needed. Pneumonia may be caused by either a virus or a bacteria. To find out which, your doctor may order samples of your sputum to see what type of organism grows up in the lab. If it’s caused by a bacteria, antibiotics will be necessary. In severe cases of pneumonia, hospitalization may be needed for I.V. antibiotics.
The Bottom Line
If you have a high fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, or you’re coughing up blood, see your doctor. If you only have a low grade fever, cough, slight wheezing, and congestion, you may not need to be seen by a doctor unless you have other medical conditions or are a smoker. Smokers are prone to developing more severe forms of bronchitis. When in doubt, see your doctor.