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How do I Tell the Difference Between a Cold and Bronchitis?

Anna T.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The main difference between a cold and bronchitis relates to the severity of each. You probably won't get bronchitis unless you had a cold or some sort of upper respiratory infection first because bronchitis is normally caused by the common cold, and it develops when the airways leading to the lungs become inflamed and irritated. If you are suffering from a runny nose, sinus pain, and a mild cough or sore throat, you probably just have the common cold. In the event that your cold gets worse and you develop a persistent cough that is unproductive and lasts for a few weeks up to a month, you might have bronchitis. Another one of the main differences between a cold and bronchitis is your body temperature, because you may not run a fever with a cold, but you likely will run a fever with bronchitis.

If you have a cold that has lingered for longer than normal, you may be at risk for developing bronchitis. In addition to a persistent cough and fever, other symptoms of bronchitis typically include a painful burning sensation in the chest along with hoarseness or wheezing. It is very important that you see a doctor if you are unsure of the difference between a cold and bronchitis because bronchitis often requires medical treatment. Bronchitis is typically caused by either bacteria or a virus, and if bacteria is the cause of your bronchitis, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to get rid of the infection.

Another reason why it is important to understand the difference between a cold and bronchitis is because bronchitis occasionally turns into pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. Your doctor will be able to evaluate your symptoms to determine whether you have the common cold, bronchitis, or pneumonia. The symptoms of bronchitis are often very similar to the symptoms of pneumonia, and for this reason many people mistake these illnesses for each other. With pneumonia, your fever will typically go much higher than it would if bronchitis were the problem. If you have pneumonia, you might also be experiencing shaking, chills, and shortness of breath.

Bronchitis is not considered a life-threatening illness, but if your cold has lasted for longer than a week and you have a very persistent cough that doesn't seem to be improving, you should definitely go see your doctor. In addition to antibiotics, your doctor may be able to prescribe a cough suppressant for you to take at night so your cough won't disrupt your sleep. Antibiotics may not be necessary if your bronchitis is viral, and it should go away on its own once your body rids itself of the virus that caused it.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Anna T.
By Anna T.
Anna Thurman is a skilled writer who lends her talents to WiseGeek. Her ability to research and present information in an engaging and accessible manner allows her to create content that resonates with readers across a wide range of subjects.
Discussion Comments
By fBoyle — On Jan 02, 2014

@ddljohn-- Bronchitis is very severe but a cold is not. If it's bronchitis, coughing lasts more than ten days, coughing is very loud and there might be a fever. A cold will almost always go away on its own when the person stays warm and rests. But bronchitis will not go away without some sort of treatment, almost always including antibiotics.

Symptoms of a cold are mild like runny nose, slight fatigue and sore throat.

By burcinc — On Jan 01, 2014

@ddljohn-- I'm not a doctor so I'm not sure. You might not be able to differentiate between a severe cold or bronchitis because a severe cold usually turns into bronchitis when it's not treated. If you have symptoms like wheezing and coughing, see your doctor like the article said.

Bronchitis technically means the inflammation of the bronchial tubes of the lungs. So I think this can occur due to different conditions and infections. Infections almost always lead to inflammation, so you can assume that you have an upper respiratory infection if you have bronchitis symptoms. But a doctor is the only person who can diagnose it, determine the severity and treat it.

It's best to take your precaution and get treated right away. You will regret that you ignored your symptoms if it develops into pneumonia.

By ddljohn — On Jan 01, 2014

Is the cause of a cold and the cause of bronchitis the same? Are they both caused by a bacterial infection?

How do I know if I have a severe cold or bronchitis if I'm coughing a lot?

Anna T.
Anna T.
Anna Thurman is a skilled writer who lends her talents to WiseGeek. Her ability to research and present information in an engaging and accessible manner allows her to create content that resonates with readers across a wide range of subjects.
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