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Bronchitis and pneumonia, which can both affect COPD patients, have similar symptoms but they are very different. Pneumonia is a lot more severe than bronchitis, but how can you tell them apart?

You’ve probably experienced the symptoms of a cold many times — a sore throat, coughing, and a runny nose. However, with pneumonia and bronchitis, you might not know the symptoms well enough to recognize them, and you may find it hard to tell the difference. So, what do you need to know about these two lung infections?

Bronchitis and pneumonia are both lung infections. They also share some similar symptoms. They are not the same, however, and the treatment options are very different. What is the most important difference? Pneumonia is much more serious, and so if you think you have either, it’s crucial you go to the hospital or call your doctor. You might have to get a chest x-ray so that your doctor can determine if it is pneumonia or bronchitis that you are dealing with.

What should I know about bronchitis?

Bronchitis is called that because it infects the primary airways of the lungs — the bronchi. When the bronchi are infected, they get swollen and inflamed. Bronchitis is not as serious as pneumonia. There are two different kinds of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis is only brief and and will go away in around three weeks. Acute bronchitis inflames the airways and makes you cough and produce lots of phlegm. Anyone can get acute bronchitis, but it’s most frequent in children younger than five. You're most likely to get it when it’s winter and as you get better from a common cold or flu.
  • Chronic bronchitis — As the name suggests, chronic bronchitis is the chronic form of the disease. It’s a daily cough you experience at least three months of the year, and will plague you for a minimum of two years. It usually affects people older than 40 years old. Together with other lung conditions — like emphysema — chronic bronchitis is part of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD umbrella.

It’s common to get acute bronchitis from the same viruses that cause a flu or a cold. When a virus causes it, that means that you shouldn't use antibiotics since they won’t help. Acute bronchitis can be bacterial, but that’s very rare.

Some of the symptoms you might get from acute bronchitis include different breathing problems, like:

  • You feel more short of breath (dyspnea)
  • While you're breathing, you make a whistling or a hissing sound (wheezing)
  • Intense coughing with a large amount of phlegm that could be colored clear, yellow, green, or white.
  • Your chest feels blocked or full (chest congestion)

It could be possible that you also get characteristic flu or cold symptoms, like:

  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A sore throat
  • A mild fever
  • Chills and body aches

Luckily, acute bronchitis usually goes away by itself in a few weeks. However, the cough could stick around for a few more weeks, sometimes even months. COPD patients are at a higher risk of complicatations and may notice their symptoms are getting worse.

You should call your physician right away if:

  • You have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • You can’t go to seep because of coughing
  • You cough out phlegm which starts getting darker or thicker
  • You experience being short of breath or wheezing
  • You get a fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius

On the more severe side, chronic bronchitis doesn’t just go away after a few weeks but features a cough that sticks around for three months or longer. You may also notice that your cough improves but then suddenly gets worse, in a repetatitive pattern. If your cough is suddenly more severe, you are dealing with an exacerbation (a COPD flare-up).

Not only do COPD exacerbations cause your cough to intensify, it can also make for a worsening of other COPD symptoms, like being out of breath, phlegm production, and wheezing.

You may need the following treatments to deal with severe COPD flare-ups caused by chronic bronchitis:

  • Steroids
  • Antibiotics
  • Inhalers

If your symptoms start getting worse, call your doctor for advice.

What should I know about pneumonia?

While pneumonia is a lung infection like bronchitis, it doesn’t affect the bronchi but rather the small air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. Pneumonia is also a lot more severe than bronchitis. Many people who develop pneumonia recover without any long-term effects but in some cases it can be severe and sometimes even life-threatening. This especially applies to babies and children, adults older than 65, and those who have a weak immune system.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can all cause pneuomnia, as can breathing in irritants.
  • Bacterial pneumonia — Bacterial pneumonia is most often caused by Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria.
  • Viral pneumonia — You can get this type from a virus like influenza type A or B. The most common virus though, is the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which also causes colds. Small children usually develop this type.
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia — This one is caused by small organisms called mycoplasma. They are similar to bacteria and viruses.
  • Fungal pneumonia — Caused by fungi like Pneumocystis jiroveci, this kind of pneumonia is also more common in people who have a weak immune system.

While pneumonia is very different from bronchitis, it does have quite a few of the same symptoms, like:

  • Coughing which usually includes green, yellow, and sometimes bloody phlegm
  • A fever lasting a long time that is usually pretty high
  • Being out of breath or short of breath
  • Chills that may also lead to shaking
  • A sharp pain in your chest
  • Feeling confused (most commonly in elderly people)

You should contact your physician right away if your cough won’t go away, you are coughing up pus, or:

  • You’re feeling severe chest pain
  • You have a fever of 102 F or 38 C
  • You feel short of breath and/or have difficulties breathing while doing your daily activities
  • You are having chills, and shaking

How can I treat pneumonia?

Pneumonia treatment depends on the cause. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial pneumonia, while viral pneumonia can be managed with antiviral drugs. COPD patients are at risk of COPD flare-ups if they develop pneumonia. This can be very serious, and you may require hospitalization. 

Preventing lung infections is easier than treating them, so all COPD patients should get a flu shot ever year, and stay up to date on pneumonia vaccines.

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