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Pneumonia vs. Bronchitis: What’s the Difference?

These lung infections have some similarities, so getting the correct diagnosis is key.
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Last updated March 26, 2021

Pneumonia vs. bronchitis questionnaire

What are pneumonia and bronchitis?

Pneumonia and bronchitis are infections of the lungs. Pneumonia is less common but can be more severe than bronchitis and sometimes requires hospitalization.

Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways of the lungs, most often caused by a viral infection.

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lung’s air sacs. The air sacs are deeper in the lung and are responsible for oxygen exchange with the blood. Pneumonia is often caused by bacterial or viral infections and causes the air sacs to fill with fluid or pus (infectious material from the body).

Pneumonia and bronchitis require different treatments. It’s important to get the correct diagnosis from your doctor so you receive the right care.

Most common symptoms

Pro Tip

Patients at high risk for pneumonia (such as those 65 and older or those with certain medical conditions) are eligible for pneumonia vaccines that can reduce the risk of some types of pneumonia. Influenza vaccines can also reduce the risk of pneumonia from influenza and bacterial pneumonia that occurs during or after a recent influenza infection. —Dr. Benjamin Ranard

Pneumonia and bronchitis share some symptoms like a cough. But there are differences in how severe symptoms are and how likely you are to experience them. Common symptoms of pneumonia (but not bronchitis) are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Pneumonia symptoms


  • Cough, with or without mucus
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue and feeling run down

Less common

  • Recent or current symptoms of congestion, runny nose, and/or sore throat
  • Chest pain (sometimes, when you take deep breaths)
  • Chills

Bronchitis symptoms


  • Cough, with or without mucus
  • Recent or current symptoms of congestion, runny nose, and/or sore throat
  • Mild fatigue and feeling mildly run down

Less common

  • Wheezing (sometimes)
  • Chest pain (sometimes, due to severe coughing)
  • Fever (low or not present)

Next steps

See your doctor if you have symptoms of bronchitis or pneumonia so you can get the correct diagnosis and treatment. It’s especially important if you’re at high risk of developing pneumonia. This includes children age 2 and younger, adults over age 65, and those with compromised immune systems.

Go directly to a doctor or urgent care if you’re experiencing these symptoms:

  • Fever (temperature above 100.4°F)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain with deep breaths
  • Persistent cough that doesn’t go away in 2 to 3 weeks

Sometimes, symptoms can be so serious and severe that they require immediate care. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency right away if you’re experiencing:

  • Chest pain (especially constant chest pain or chest pain with exertion)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion or difficulty staying awake


Dr. Rx

If you have either frequent episodes of acute bronchitis or more than one pneumonia you should ask your doctor if you’ve been evaluated for other conditions that may be contributing to your frequent illnesses. —Dr. Ranard

Both respiratory illnesses are caused by a foreign substance getting trapped in the lungs and causing an infection. The most common causes are viruses and bacteria.


  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Fungi (rare)
  • Rare non-infectious conditions that can cause longer-lasting pneumonia


  • Viruses (common)
  • Bacteria (rare)

Risk factors

Bronchitis is a very common infection that can occur in anyone. Anyone can develop pneumonia as well. But, it’s more likely to occur in certain groups of people. These include:

  • Children age 2 or younger
  • Adults age 65 or older
  • People who have chronic diseases (especially lung diseases)
  • Smokers
  • People who have a weakened immune system


Pro Tip

A common misconception is that antibiotics will treat acute bronchitis. Most acute bronchitis is from a viral illness and antibiotic treatment has all of the risks of antibiotics but none of the benefits since antibiotics can’t kill viruses. Pneumonia, on the other hand, often requires treatment with antibiotics. —Dr. Ranard


Pneumonia can be diagnosed by the symptoms and an exam, along with a blood test and a chest X-ray.

Pneumonia is treated with antibiotics when a bacterial infection is suspected. Symptoms improve in a few days to a week, but you may still have lingering fatigue or shortness of breath for several weeks. If it is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are not prescribed.

Pneumonia can sometimes be treated at home, but some people may need to be monitored and treated at a hospital. This may be necessary if your pneumonia is severe or you have chronic underlying lung diseases.


Bronchitis can often be diagnosed by your doctor based on your symptoms and a brief exam (listening to your lungs). Since the majority of bronchitis cases are caused by a virus, not bacteria, most people are not given antibiotics.

Bronchitis usually improves on its own in 1 to 3 weeks.

If you’re wheezing, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler. Otherwise, you can use over-the-counter medications like cough medications. If you have headaches or feel run down, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Advil, Aleve).

Share your story

Dr. Ranard is a Pulmonary and Critical Care fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center / NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He received his undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from Cornell University (2011) and his Doctor of Medicine and Masters of Science in Health Policy Research from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2016). In addition to pulmonology and critical care medicine, Dr. Ranard is interested in health care redesign, health policy, and looking for ways to improve the quality of care for all patients.

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