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Bronchitis and pneumonia may be easily confused since both may exhibit similar symptoms. Both bronchitis and pneumonia attack the respiratory system, but they are different illnesses that infect separate areas within the respiratory tract. Knowing the difference between the two illnesses can help a person identify distinct symptoms and seek medical treatment when necessary.
Acute bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tubes, which are the airways that carry air to and from the lungs. Usually, this infection is caused by exposure to a virus, such as a flu or common cold. Bronchitis will typically clear in a few weeks without medical aid, and since it is often viral in nature, antibiotics may be ineffective as a treatment.
There is also a chronic form of bronchitis that is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic bronchitis tends to recur on a regular basis and is usually caused by long-term damage to the airways, such as scarring and inflammation caused by smoking. Signs of chronic bronchitis include a mucus-producing cough that reoccurs for at least three days per month.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can reduce the body's capability to circulate oxygen to organs. It may be caused either by a virus or bacteria, and can sometimes be treated with antibiotics. Generally, pneumonia is considered a more dangerous condition than acute bronchitis, since it inhibits total body function if the inflammation in the lungs becomes severe.
Some symptoms are the same in bronchitis and pneumonia, causing understandable confusion about which condition is present. Both bronchitis and pneumonia may result in a mucus-producing cough, with mucous that is yellow or green. Fever, fatigue, and other upper respiratory symptoms, such as a runny or stuffed up nose, are common with both conditions.
One key symptom that can distinguish bronchitis and pneumonia is an increasing shortness of breath. As the inflammation attacks the lung tissue, pneumonia can make it harder and harder to take in oxygen, as well as allow oxygenated blood to circulate. A high fever is more common with pneumonia than with bronchitis. People with pneumonia may also cough up bloody or rust-tinged mucus, which is very uncommon with acute bronchitis.
Doctors may use chest X-rays to determine if a lung infection exists, as the conditions may be hard to distinguish by simple symptom descriptions. In a patient with pneumonia, an X-ray will usually show an abnormality that denotes an infection, whereas bronchitis may show no signs on an X-ray. Treatment for bronchitis is frequently a simple course of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medication for symptoms. For pneumonia, patients are generally put on a course of antibiotics on the assumption that the infection is bacterial. If the antibiotics do not work or symptoms worsen, the patient may be admitted to hospital care for tests and careful monitoring.