Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia

Both cause coughs, but are very different illnesses

Bronchitis and pneumonia can both cause coughing, chest congestion, and chills. But while bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tubes, which carry air into the lungs, pneumonia is an infection in the alveoli, the air sacs where oxygen passes into the bloodstream.

The causes of bronchitis vs. pneumonia also differ. Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Pneumonia can be viral, bacterial, or fungal. This, of course, impacts treatment: Bronchitis is usually left to run its course. Pneumonia, on the other hand, may require prescription medications, and, in some cases, hospitalization.

This article discusses how the symptoms and causes of bronchitis and pneumonia differ, as well as why treatment for one may not be appropriate for the other.

Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2017. 

Symptoms of Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia

Pneumonia and bronchitis have similar symptoms, but critical differences as well. Here is a side-by-side comparison of bronchitis and pneumonia symptoms.

  • Persistent cough that may be dry or wet

  • Chest pain

  • Chills

  • Shortness of breath with wheezing

  • Body aches

  • Sore throat

  • Persistent cough that is painful and productive

  • Chest pain

  • Chills and fever

  • Shortness of breath

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

Understanding Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs. It can occur after a viral illness such as the common cold or flu, or occasionally, it can develop on its own. Typically bronchitis is viral, meaning that antibiotics are not helpful in treating it.

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Persistent cough (with or without mucus)
  • Sore throat
  • Chest pain (worse with cough)
  • Chest congestion
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Body aches

Acute bronchitis can resolve on its own within about a week, but the cough may linger for weeks or even months.

If you've been diagnosed with bronchitis and your symptoms worsen or change significantly, you may have developed another infection. Contact your healthcare provider to be seen again if this happens.

Treating Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, so antibiotics are rarely prescribed. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, and using them to treat a viral infection only leads to antibiotic resistance.

Occasionally, bronchitis is caused by bacteria. If your healthcare provider believes this is the case, they may prescribe antibiotics to treat it at that time. More often, however, treating acute bronchitis simply means finding relief from the symptoms until the illness resolves.

You may find over-the-counter (OTC) medications helpful, and you should try to rest as much as possible and increase your fluid intake as well.

And although acute bronchitis is bothersome, it is typically not as severe as pneumonia.

Bronchitis Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Understanding Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. Although both illnesses can cause a painful cough, pneumonia also causes other significant symptoms.

People with pneumonia typically feel much worse than a person with bronchitis would.


How Pneumonia Occurs

Symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Productive cough (may be described as a "moist" or "wet" cough)
  • Painful and frequent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Chills

There are many types of pneumonia and some are more serious than others. The most common type of pneumonia in adults is bacterial pneumonia. It can cause severe illness and is a leading cause of death among Americans.

The CDC reports that approximately 150,000 Americans are hospitalized yearly with pneumococcal pneumonia—the most common type of pneumonia. Thousands die from it as well.

Treating Pneumonia

Treatment for pneumonia will depend on the cause, but if you have bacterial pneumonia, you will almost always need to be treated with antibiotics. Other over-the-counter medications may be helpful to deal with the symptoms as well but talk with your healthcare provider about which options are suitable for you.

Getting adequate rest is essential when you have pneumonia. It is a severe illness that takes time to heal and recover from.

There are less severe forms of pneumonia—like walking pneumonia—that come with milder symptoms and don't always need to be treated with antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will determine your pneumonia type based on your symptoms, a physical exam, and tests.

A Word From Verywell

Although bronchitis and pneumonia both cause coughs and can develop after more common illnesses such as the common cold or flu, they are significantly different. Only your healthcare provider can diagnose your illness and determine which treatment is right for you.

If you have a lingering cough or any of the other symptoms listed above, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and get some answers to relieve your stress and, more importantly, your symptoms.

7 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. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute Bronchitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(7):560–5.

  2. American Academy of Family Physicians. Acute Bronchitis.

  3. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Bronchitis.

  4. Mattila JT, Fine MJ, Limper AH, Murray PR, Chen BB, Lin PL. Pneumonia. Treatment and diagnosis. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2014;11 Suppl 4:S189–92. doi:10.1513/AnnalsATS.201401-027PL

  5. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Pneumonia.

  6. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fast facts. Pneumococcal disease.

  7. American Academy of Family Physicians. Pneumonia.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.