Bronchitis vs. Cold

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When you first start coughing, feeling fatigued, and noticing a low-grade fever, it can be hard to determine whether you have the common cold or bronchitis. A cold can potentially turn into bronchitis. Acute bronchitis, which lasts for seven to 10 days, is also known as a chest cold.

Understanding the differences between a cold and bronchitis can help you determine what to do to get better. The most significant difference between the two is that a cold is a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract while bronchitis is a lower respiratory infection that affects the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. Therefore, with a cold, you will feel it in your nose or sinus area, but you will feel it in the lungs if you have bronchitis.  

Woman with fever symptoms sitting on sofa and holding thermometer

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Causes and Symptoms

Both a cold and bronchitis can be caused by a virus. For a cold, you can get it from being in close contact with another person who is infected with a virus. While there are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold, the most common one is the rhinovirus. Colds are considered a type of upper respiratory infection, which is an infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, including the nose, sinuses, and throat. That's why people with a cold have a runny rose.

While a virus is the most common cause, bronchitis can also be caused by a bacterial infection. In both cases, cells that line the bronchi become infected. When the body tries to fight the infection, it causes the bronchial tubes to swell, resulting in coughing. People with bronchitis often have a cough that sometimes brings up mucus. They may also experience shortness of breath, wheezing, a low fever, and chest tightness. 

Symptoms of a Cold vs. Symptoms of Bronchitis
Symptom Cold Bronchitis
Low-grade fever Yes Yes
Cough (no mucus) Yes Yes
Fatigue Yes Yes
Runny or stuffy nose Yes No
Sneezing Yes No
Watery eyes Yes No
Cough (with mucus) No Yes
Postnasal drip Yes No
Wheezing No Yes
Trouble breathing No Yes
Chest congestion No Yes

How Long Do Symptoms Last?

Cold symptoms typically begin with a runny nose with clear mucus. This mucus is a sign of your body washing the virus out from the infection site (your nose and sinuses). After a few days, the mucus may change to a white, yellow, or even green color. This is nothing to worry about; it is a sign that your body is fighting the infection. The runny nose and cough may continue (but decrease in severity) for 10 to 14 days.

Similarly, bronchitis is temporary and usually does not cause any permanent breathing difficulties. It typically clears up in a week or 10 days because, with time, the immune system can fight off the infection and your airways return to normal. It generally gets better on its own without treatment.

Treatment

There is no cure for the common cold or bronchitis. These conditions will clear up on their own. This means antibiotics are not necessary, nor are they recommended, even in cases of bacterial bronchitis.

However, you can look for medications that offer symptom relief. Over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestants and diphenhydramine, for example, can help with runny nose and low-grade fever, respectively.

Other things you can do to feel better when you have a cold or bronchitis include:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking lots of fluids
  • Using a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to increase air moisture for better breathing
  • Using saline nasal spray or drops to relieve a stuffy nose
  • Breathing in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower to help open and cleanse airways
  • Sucking on lozenges to relieve sore throat and cough (but do not give lozenges to children younger than 4)
  • Using honey to relieve coughing for adults and children at least 1 year old

When to Call Your Doctor

Call your doctor immediately if you have a cold and:

  • Difficulty breathing or fast breathing
  • Dehydration
  • Fever that lasts longer than four days
  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days without improvement
  • Symptoms, such as fever or cough, that improve but then return or worsen
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

Call your doctor immediately if you have bronchitis and:

  • Temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Cough with bloody mucus
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Symptoms that last more than three weeks
  • Repeat episodes of bronchitis

Prevention

The key to preventing these infections goes back to the basics of taking good care of ourselves and practicing good personal hygiene. It is also a good idea to get the flu vaccine every year and keep your distance from people who are showing signs of an upper respiratory infection, such as coughing and sneezing. 

General prevention tips include:

  • Practice proper hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.

How Often Should You Wash Your Hands?

You should be washing your hands in the following situations:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before and after eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick and has vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who used the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

You can do your best to prevent a cold from turning into bronchitis by strengthening your immune system. This includes following the cold treatment suggestions like getting plenty of rest and fluids and exercising, eating a balanced diet, and managing stress.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold. Updated February 6, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis). Updated August 30, 2019.

  3. American Lung Association. Learn about acute bronchitis. Updated January 25, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When and how to wash your hands. Updated November 24, 2020.