During the long, cold winter months, bad weather and shorter days could be enough to bring you down. To add insult to injury, the winter months are also when you are most likely to come down with an upper respiratory infection like the common cold or the flu.
What starts as a little sniffle may be the beginning of something more serious or possibly deadly. Bronchitis, pneumonia, or even COVID-19 can all begin with similar symptoms but progress along very different paths. You don’t need to call your doctor at the first sign of a runny nose, but only your healthcare provider will be able to tell for sure whether you have caught a bug that will pass in a few days or if you are in the early stages of a viral pneumonia that could end in hospitalization.
Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: What’s the Difference?
These two conditions are often confused with each other, and some people may mistakenly use the terms interchangeably. Though there is a large number of shared symptoms between the two illnesses, they are very different in terms of what causes them and how they affect the body. To help clear up the confusion, let’s begin with a quick overview of how upper respiratory infections work and what parts of the body are involved.
Upper respiratory infections result when an irritant from your environment like bacteria, a virus, dust, mold, or other pollutants enter through your nose or mouth. Once these pollutants get into your airways, they can become lodged and cause inflammation in your nose, sinuses, throat, bronchial tubes that lead to your lungs, or even the tissues of your lungs themselves.
What diagnosis a doctor might give you depends on which tissues are most affected. If the irritant, be it bacterial or otherwise, has caused inflammation in your bronchial tubes, you will likely be diagnosed with acute bronchitis. If the infection has traveled deeper into your lungs and is causing inflammation in the alveoli that line your lungs, then you may have pneumonia.
The American Lung Association, (ALA) defines acute bronchitis as the sudden development of inflammation in the bronchial tubes or other major airways of the lungs. It is very common for bronchial inflammation to be caused by viral infections, often the same viruses that cause the common cold and the flu. Bronchitis is usually not serious, and can sometimes be cured easily by home remedies and over-the-counter drugs.
Bronchitis is a highly treatable condition that can be resolved with relatively conservative treatments in many instances. For mild cases of bronchitis, most symptoms will subside in a few days. One distinguishing characteristic of bronchial infections is a cough that can linger for up to three months after other symptoms disappear.
By contrast, pneumonia is an infection in one or both of your lungs. In this case, the infection and resulting inflammation usually involves the small air sacs, or alveoli, that are responsible for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air you breathe. Pneumonia is often caused by a bacterial infection, though viral diseases such as the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for the current coronavirus pandemic) can also cause severe inflammation in the lungs.
What are the Symptoms of Bronchitis and Pneumonia?
Since these two diseases affect your respiratory tract, their effects are going to be broadly similar. This is also why distinguishing between the common cold and something more serious can be difficult at first. Without a clear confirmation from your doctor through blood tests or a chest X-ray to confirm the extent of an infection, it would be difficult to make a clear diagnosis on symptoms alone. Several forms of respiratory infection, including pneumonia and bronchitis, share the following list of symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- low fever
- difficulty breathing
- body aches
- runny nose
- stuffy head
The symptoms of pneumonia are broadly similar to those of bronchitis, though they are usually much more severe. Fevers tend to be higher and the pains and chills you feel are often worse. Some of the symptoms that may indicate you have pneumonia include the following:
- high fever
- shaking chills
- nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- confusion, particularly among the elderly
- blue color in the lips from lack of oxygen.
How Does Bronchitis Turn into Pneumonia?
Bronchitis and pneumonia can be caused by different things, and are two distinct diagnoses, but it is possible for infections that begin in one part of the body to spread to other tissues. When you are fighting off an infection, your immune system is temporarily compromised, and forming another infection can be more likely. This can be the case with a bronchial infection that spread down into the lungs. There is also a link between the two conditions in that many things on the list of irritants that cause bronchitis such as cigarette smoke, dust, and air pollution can also damage lung tissue, possibly making you more prone to infection.
How Do You Know if You Have Bronchitis or Pneumonia?
At first it can be hard to tell the difference between these two kinds of upper respiratory infection, but as time goes by and your symptoms progress, there are a few telltale signs your doctor can look for that signal the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia. Pneumonia is often accompanied by more severe symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. In older adults there can also be mental confusion, and in extreme cases your lips may begin turning blue from lack of oxygen.
How is Bronchitis Treated?
There are different types of bronchitis, and there can be differences in how they are treated. Acute bronchitis is often treated with antibiotics, as bacterial infections are often found to be the cause.
Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a long-term inflammation rather than a unique infection caused by viruses or bacteria you encounter. This form of airway irritation is considered a version of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. This category of diseases contains other serious illnesses such as asthma and chronic emphysema.
Since bronchial infections are often caused by viruses, antibacterial medicines are not effective in helping you get better. Steroid inhalers are often prescribed to help fight inflammation, open up your airways, and generally help you breathe better.
If your doctor has determined that your infection is mild and does not require significant medical intervention, you may be told to go home, rest up, and use over-the-counter medication to ease your symptoms until the infection clears up on its own. Using a humidifier also can help ease irritation that can come from breathing dry winter air.
How Do You Treat Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a serious condition that has the potential to permanently harm your lungs or even develop into a much more serious condition called bacteremia. Full respiratory failure is even possible in extreme cases. As a result, treatment for pneumonia can be more involved than for bronchitis.
In cases of pneumonia that are caused by bacteria, your doctor will put you on antibiotics to help your body fight off the infection. This can be an effective tool to help put you on the path to health, but it will only work if bacteria are the cause of your pneumonia. If viruses are to blame, your treatment will look different.
As is the case with viral bronchitis, steroid inhalers or other anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to help manage the inflammation response your body produces when infections are present. Additionally, getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medication for pain and other symptoms if allowed by your doctor will give your body its greatest chance of recovering quickly.
When Should I See a Doctor About Pneumonia or Bronchitis?
When it comes to treating pneumonia, bronchitis, or any other serious upper respiratory infection, it is wise to err on the side of safety. Long term lung damage, or even respiratory failure, is possible if infections are left untreated. This is particularly true if you have risk factors such as a history of smoking, COPD, or a chronically weakened immune system. Chronic bronchitis in particular can make you prone to repeated infections in other areas of your respiratory tract.
No matter your age or health condition, you should see a doctor if you begin to cough up blood or find it mixed with the mucous and phlegm that can be brought up by repeated coughing. An extremely high fever, especially in young children, can also be a reason to talk to your doctor. Severe difficulty breathing is also a reason to consult with a medical professional, especially as that is a possible symptom of a coronavirus infection.
During the ongoing pandemic, the concern is not so much whether you have bronchitis or pneumonia, but that you may have contracted COVID-19. Everything from an innocuous common cold to the life-threatening coronavirus can begin with fever, chills, cough, and a sore throat. More extreme symptoms such as pain in the chest, confusion, and the lips turning blue from lack of oxygen could be bacterial pneumonia, but it could also be a viral infection like COVID-19.
It is best not to take chances when it comes to your respiratory health. This is particularly true if you are older or have other medical conditions that could impair the function of your immune system. During flu season, this can seem difficult, as there are more chances to come down with something. While you don’t need to go running off to your healthcare provider at the first sniffle, it is still important to keep an eye out for the more worrying symptoms of COVID-19. If you or someone you know has been ill and is suddenly experiencing trouble breathing, complains of severe chest pains, and is showing other signs like pale or blue skin or lips from not getting enough oxygen, contact your healthcare provider immediately.
Knowledge is powerful, and knowing what you are up against when you feel sick can be comforting. Getting tested to find out what is causing your symptoms is the first step to a diagnosis and treatment. It can also help you know the risk to you and those around you if COVID-19 might be present. At TrustCare we are there for you with several COVID-19 testing centers where you can get tested for the coronavirus and with our clinic locations where you can be evaluated by our trained medical professionals to find out what exactly is ailing you and what can be done to get you feeling better, faster.