Why are you coughing?
You have a hacking cough with fever, shortness of breath, and chills. Something is making you sick but what is it? Is it Pneumonia or Bronchitis? Does it really matter which one it is? Yes, it does because the impact it could have on your health and the treatment provided for one is different from the other. By understanding the differences and knowing when to go to your doctor, you can recover faster.
Both pneumonia and bronchitis are infections that affect your lungs, but are typically caused by different organisms and occur after a cold or bout of the flu. Pneumonia is an infection that is usually caused by bacteria and inflames the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs causing the sacs to fill with fluid or pus. The severity of illness can be from mild to life-threatening. Besides coughing, symptoms include chest pain when breathing/coughing, fatigue, fever, sweating, chills, shortness of breath, phlegm (usually clear) and nausea/vomiting/diarrhea. Some groups in the population are at increased risk, such as newborns (who might not have any symptoms) and people over 65 (who might exhibit confusion and lower than normal body temperature). Milder versions of pneumonia are often referred to as walking pneumonia because they don’t require bedrest. Community-acquired pneumonia is when you get it from your normal daily activities and is the most common form. There is healthcare-acquired pneumonia, which is when someone is sick in the hospital and gets pneumonia or someone lives in a long-term care facility (ex. nursing home) and gets pneumonia. Both of these are more serious because they are often resistant to certain antibiotics.
Bronchitis is an infection that is most often caused by a virus and inflames the linings of the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs. It is further divided into acute (sudden) and chronic (long- term). We will be focusing on acute because this is what most people experience. Besides coughing, symptoms include shortness of breath, slight fever, chills, fatigue, chest discomfort, and mucus (which can be discolored). Often you could experience a nagging cough for several weeks after the inflammation has resolved.
Since treatment for pneumonia and acute bronchitis differ due to the organism that causes them are different, knowing when to go the doctor also varies. You should visit the doctor if you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent fever > 102°F, constant cough (especially if it contains pus) as these are signs of pneumonia. People in high risk groups, such as children under two years of age, people over 65, and people with weakened immune systems should definitely see their doctor if they have any of the previous mentioned symptoms. If you have a fever > 100.4°F with a cough that has lasted more than 3 weeks, prevents you from sleeping, produces discolored mucus or blood, and is associated with wheezing or shortness of breath, you might have acute bronchitis. Both are diagnosed by physical exam, chest x-ray, and/or sputum test. Once confirmed which one you have, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics (most often for pneumonia), cough medicine, and fever reducers/pain relievers. The best thing that you can do at home is taking your medicine as prescribed, rest, stay hydrated, use a humidifier, and avoid lung irritants (ex. smoking).
Even though both diseases vary in cause and treatment, the way to prevent them is the same. The first, and most important, step is to wash your hands. This is especially important if you have been around people who have a cold or the flu. The next step is to get vaccinated accordingly. For acute bronchitis, you should get the flu vaccine yearly. For pneumonia, you should get the flu vaccine yearly and the pneumonia vaccine if it is recommended by your doctor. The third step is to avoid smoking because it damages your lungs and makes you more susceptible to getting a lung infection when you get a cold or the flu.
Even if you do get sick, remember you will get better and now you know what to look for and expect, you can figure out if you have pneumonia or acute bronchitis. Please see Fast Facts for a side by side comparison of pneumonia and acute bronchitis symptoms, to determine when to go to the doctor and seek treatment. If you are unsure or have any questions, always check with a doctor. For any further information, please visit the American Lung Association at www.lung.org