Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2022
Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia
Bronchitis and pneumonia both affect breathing and cause coughing, but there are key differences between causes, symptoms, and treatment

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both diseases of the respiratory tract that affect breathing and cause coughing. However, there are key differences between causes, symptoms, and treatment.

Causes of bronchitis vs. pneumonia


Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi, which are small airways that carry air from the trachea to the lungs. Inflammation causes them to fill with mucus, which obstructs airflow.

Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and less commonly by bacteria. In most cases, it follows the common cold or flu, which are caused by a virus. The virus is spread through tiny droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs into the air.

Bronchitis can also be triggered by factors such as:

  • Smoking (active and secondhand smoking)
  • Exposure to:
    • Grain dust
    • Textiles
    • Chlorine
    • Ammonia
    • Strong acids

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a common cold or flu and lasts 1-2 weeks. Chronic bronchitis develops over time and slowly worsens, often triggered by smoking, pollution, and exposure to materials used in factories such as textiles. Repeated attacks of acute bronchitis are generally called chronic bronchitis, which lasts for several weeks of the year.


Pneumonia affects one or both the lungs. It can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi in the air you breathe. Usually, your immune system prevents these microbes from entering your body and causing infection. However, pneumonia can occur when your immunity is lowered and you are exposed to an infected person’s sneezes or coughs.

Risk factors that increase your chances of developing pneumonia include:

Symptoms of bronchitis vs. pneumonia


Bronchitis is mainly characterized by symptoms such as:


Symptoms of pneumonia typically include:

Sometimes, flu-like symptoms, such as a runny or stuffy nose, and body aches may be experienced in pneumonia.

What tests are needed to differentiate between bronchitis and pneumonia?

Although both bronchitis and pneumonia cause similar symptoms, they are quite different and require tests to confirm a diagnosis. Your doctor will take your medical history, look for the signs and symptoms, and examine your chest to listen for any wheezing or problems with air in your lungs. Depending on these factors, they may order tests such as:

  • Chest X-ray: Helps distinguish between bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Sputum analysis: Involves removing sputum after a deep cough and analyzing it in a lab.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can confirm whether an infection is responsible for the cough, as well as determine the type and severity.
  • Pulmonary function test: Performed if your doctor suspects you have bronchitis, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. During the test, you blow air into a device called a spirometer, which measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can get the air out of your lungs.
  • Chest CT scan: Provides a detailed view of the lungs and helps distinguish between different lung conditions, including bronchitis and pneumonia.
  • Pulse oximetry: Uses a small device called a pulse oximeter, which shows oxygen saturation levels in the blood (SpO2) in percentages.


COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma. See Answer

How do bronchitis and pneumonia differ in treatment?

Treatment for both bronchitis and pneumonia depend on the underlying cause, whether bacterial or viral.

  • Viral bronchitis typically goes away on its own and will not be helped with antibiotics. In rare cases, an antiviral drug may be prescribed.
  • For chronic bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler or nebulizer, through which medications are delivered to your respiratory tract. The inhaler may contain steroid drugs that work to lower the inflammation and clear mucus from your lungs.
  • Bacterial pneumonia and acute (bacterial) bronchitis are treated with antibiotics.
  • For more severe cases of bronchitis or pneumonia, your doctor may recommend oxygen support to help you breathe.
  • Pneumonia is typically a more serious condition than acute bronchitis and the chances of hospitalization are higher. You may recover from pneumonia within a few days to 1-2 weeks of treatment but feel fatigued for over a month.

Whether you have bronchitis or pneumonia, recovery can be helped with the following tips:

Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Fayyaz J. Bronchitis. Medscape.

Gamache J. Bacterial Pneumonia. Medscape.

Mosenifar Z. Viral Pneumonia. Medscape.