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Bronchitis vs Pneumonia - What's the difference between them?

Medically reviewed by Carmen Pope, BPharm. Last updated on June 29, 2023.

Official answer


The main difference between bronchitis and pneumonia is that bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways (these are the breathing tubes that lead into the lungs) whereas pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs.

Airway inflammation that happens during bronchitis may be due to either environmental pollutants (such as cigarette smoke, smog, or other irritants), or infection, most commonly from viruses or bacteria, often the same ones that cause a cold or the flu. Pneumonia is usually caused by either viruses or bacteria, although occasionally it may be caused by fungi.

Both cause similar symptoms, such as coughing, mucus production, and chest discomfort or tightness. Shortness of breath may also occur with either condition.

The cough with bronchitis is typically persistent and may be accompanied by a low-grade fever. Bronchitis may be classified as acute – which means short-lasting – or chronic, which means that it persists for months or sometimes years at a time. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one form of chronic bronchitis. Treatment usually improves symptoms but does not cure them. Industrial bronchitis is a condition that occurs after persistent exposure fumes, dust, or smoke. Symptoms may resolve on the removal of the offending substance or can be minimized using face masks.

Pneumonia is more likely to be accompanied by a high-grade fever which may result in other symptoms such as confusion, clammy or sweaty skin, a headache, feeling unwell, a loss of appetite, sharp chest pain, or white discoloration of the nails (leukonychia). In some people, pneumonia can be life-threatening, because the infection affects how much oxygen is delivered to the lungs and the rest of the body.

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and listen to your chest with a stethoscope before making a diagnosis; pneumonia typically causes sounds of crackling, wheezing, and bubbling in the chest. If pneumonia is suspected, your doctor may also order a chest x-ray and blood tests.

Most healthy people can recover from either bronchitis or pneumonia within a few weeks of treatment. However, some people develop complications from the original infection. See your doctor as soon as possible after you develop symptoms and always go back if your symptoms seem to worsen with time instead of getting better.

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