Just A Prolonged Cold? Learn The Differences Between Bronchitis, Pneumonia, And The Common Cold

Just A Prolonged Cold? Learn The Differences Between Bronchitis, Pneumonia, And The Common Cold

When you’re feeling under the weather, you start asking yourself: is this just a long cold, or something more serious? How can you tell the difference between a cold, pneumonia, and bronchitis? We’ve been asking this question for ages. 

When heavy winds brought about rough waters on the open sea, 19th-century sailors would seek refuge from the storm in their cabins below deck to avoid becoming seasick. This caution introduced a new term as sailors would find asylum “under the weather.” 

Over time, “under the weather” has been used to describe illnesses of all ilks, whether it’s pneumonia, bronchitis, or just the common cold. 

Despite the general terminology, it can be challenging to determine the exact cause of your sickness. Of course, identifying the nature of your ailment in today’s world is both possible and essential to your treatment, especially if you aren’t a 19th-century mariner. 

While the common cold may disguise itself as a more serious issue, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, there are some key differences between the three. Simply put, the common cold affects your nose and sinuses. Bronchitis and pneumonia affect your chest and lungs.

It’s important to know the symptoms to look out for when you are feeling “under the weather.” Let's take a look.

Is it the Sniffles? Common Cold Symptoms

Everyone has experienced the common cold multiple times in their lives. You probably know these symptoms well— but let's briefly go into them for the sake of comparison.

Symptoms of the common cold typically appear one to three days after you're exposed to the cold virus. Some of these symptoms may include the following:

  • A stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • A mild cough
  • A slight fever
  • A mild headache or body aches

The best way to treat a cold is with plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. You can also treat your symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine. You can also reduce nasal congestion with nasal spray, saline solution, neti pot, or SinuSonic.

Related: How to Sleep With a Stuffy Nose

Have You Been Sick Recently? Bronchitis Symptoms to Look Out For

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes in your lungs become inflamed and produce mucus. This often happens after you've already had an upper respiratory infection— like the common cold or a sinus infection. There are two types of bronchitis— acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.

Acute Bronchitis

Like the common cold, acute bronchitis, also known as a chest cold, is typically caused by a virus. One major difference from the common cold is that nasal congestion is not typically a symptom of bronchitis. Some symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • A cough— with or without mucus
  • Fatigue
  • Chest soreness
  • Mild headache or body aches
  • Sore throat

Acute bronchitis typically goes away on its own and can be treated with plenty of rest and fluids. If your cough is particularly bothersome, an OTC cough suppressant can help you find relief. If a bacterial infection causes your bronchitis, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection. However, antibiotics aren't effective against viral causes of bronchitis.

Remember— if you have a cold, you'll feel it most in your sinuses. If you have bronchitis, you'll feel it in your chest and lungs.

Chronic Bronchitis

On the other hand, chronic bronchitis isn't caused by a virus or an earlier infection. This long-term inflammation in your lungs is most often caused by exposure to lung irritants, including cigarette smoke, air pollution, and even dust. People with chronic bronchitis may also have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)— both of which can cause breathing problems.

Some symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • A nagging cough— often known as smoker's cough. This cough typically involves wheezing and tends to be a wet, phlegmy cough. [1]
  • Expectoration— or coughing up mucus.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.

Chronic bronchitis isn't something you can just catch. For your bronchitis to become chronic, you must rule out other causes of lung disease— like tuberculosis, asthma, or upper respiratory tract infections— as the cause of your symptoms. Your symptoms must also persist for at least three months over the span of 2 years.

Are You At Risk? Pneumonia Symptoms To Be Aware Of

Like bronchitis, pneumonia causes inflammation in your lungs. When you have pneumonia, the inflammation occurs in your lungs' air sacs— or alveoli— causing them to fill with fluid. Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • A cough— which can produce discolored or even bloody mucus
  • Chest pain that worsens when you cough or breathe deeply
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Like bronchitis, nasal congestion is not a symptom of pneumonia. Pneumonia is another infection you will feel in your chest rather than your sinuses. Pneumonia symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, depending on three factors:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • What virus, bacteria, or fungus is causing the infection [2]

The cause of your pneumonia can be a determining factor between a mild case and a more severe case. Let's take a look.

Bacterial Pneumonia vs. Viral Pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused either by a viral infection or a bacterial infection. Bacterial pneumonia is the most common form of the disease. Its symptoms typically require medical care to cure the infection (typically with antibiotics) and prevent further complications. Bacterial pneumonia symptoms can occur suddenly or gradually and often includes a high fever, rapid breathing, and an accelerated heart rate.

Viral pneumonia is less severe and tends to develop more gradually. Its early symptoms resemble the flu, including a fever, cough, fatigue, and muscle pain. Those symptoms typically get worse as the disease progresses. Less severe cases of pneumonia can be treated with OTC medications such as cough medicine, pain relievers, and fever reducers— and plenty of rest.

How Age Puts You at Higher Risk of Severe Pneumonia

For most people, symptoms are pretty straightforward. However, symptoms in the elderly and the very young can be especially severe.

Babies with pneumonia may show traditional symptoms, such as coughing, fever, fatigue, and vomiting, or may not show any symptoms at all. This is why it’s so important to know what to look for.

Older adults may show fewer symptoms, but these symptoms are often more severe because of a weakened immune system. Pneumonia symptoms in older adults may often come with changes in awareness, such as confusion.

When to Seek Medical Treatment

Pneumonia can become life-threatening in a matter of days. Do not wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment. Call your healthcare provider if you have any of the above symptoms so they can help you get the proper treatment.

If you're experiencing any of the following symptoms— especially if you're in a high-risk age group— contact your doctor immediately:

  • A high fever
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Developing a bluish tint in your lips and fingertips due to a lack of oxygen in your blood.
  • A severe, phlegmy cough

The Takeaway— Similar but Different

The common cold, bronchitis, and pneumonia may seem similar at first glance. However, the three have notable differences, despite what sailors may tell you. Remember— the key difference between having a cold and infections like bronchitis and pneumonia is their location. 

The common cold affects your nose and sinuses. Bronchitis and pneumonia affect your chest and lungs.

Knowing the difference between these infections can not only make getting proper treatment easier, but it may even save a life!

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  1. Jewell, Tim. “Smoker's Cough: Remedies, Duration, and More.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 25 Apr. 2017, www.healthline.com/health/smokers-cough. 
  2. “Causes of Pneumonia.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Oct. 2020, www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/causes.html.