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Careful – Acute Bronchitis Can Lead to Pneumonia

Posted by Steffanie Campbell, M.D. on Dec 31, 2016, 9:15:00 AM

Winter months are usually a time for warm blankets, fuzzy scarves and hot chocolate, although not in Houston at the moment where temperatures are in the 70s and 80s. It also tends to be a time for bronchitis. Bronchitis itself isn’t generally a problem, but if you let it go without treatment for too long, acute bronchitis can lead to pneumonia. 

Bacteria Causes Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria. Bacteria causes a respiratory tract infection which can create inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes. The inflammation causes mucus to form and the bronchial tubes to constrict, which makes it difficult to breathe. Acute bronchitis can last for a couple weeks – more if you’re a smoker. Here are some symptoms of acute bronchitis: 

  • A cough that won’t go away – generally a dry cough
  • Mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Pain in the chest from coughing
  • Typically no fever

It’s also important to note that acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis aren’t the same. While acute bronchitis is caused by an infection, chronic bronchitis is typically the result of a consistent irritant, like smoking. 

Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a persistent cough with sputum production (spitting out of the material produced in the respiratory tract). This occurs at least three months for two years in a row. This is not the type of bronchitis that typically leads to pneumonia. 

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The Difference Between Bronchitis and Pneumonia

The major difference between bronchitis and pneumonia is that bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes and pneumonia causes fluid to build up in the lungs in response to an infection. Both can cause breathing problems. Again, if you’ve had acute bronchitis and it isn’t being treated by your physician, you could be at risk for developing pneumonia as the bacteria in your lungs multiply. Here are some symptoms of pneumonia: 

  • Cough that brings up mucus from the lungs
  • Fever that’s typically higher than 101 degrees
  • Chills
  • Faster heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing 

If your doctor suspects you have pneumonia, he or she will likely have your lungs X-rayed. If you have pneumonia, an X-ray will likely reveal the presence of fluid in your lungs.

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When to See a Doctor

First, if you have any questions or concerns, it’s time to see your doctor. It’s better to be safe than sorry, but also you need to know that coughs can last for upwards of two weeks before going away with over-the-counter medication, so it isn’t uncommon for your doctor to send you home without a prescription and orders to rest and drink lots of fluid. It’s better to save antibiotic use until you need it. If you have any of the following symptoms, see a doctor immediately: 

  • Cough accompanied with chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood, yellow or green mucus
  • Fever higher than 101
  • Night sweats that are soaking through your sheets 

After you’ve seen your doctor, follow their directions! You don’t want to let acute bronchitis go into pneumonia! 


Dr. Steffanie Campbell specializes in Internal Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic – Pearland. Preventive care, individualized care plans and women’s health are her primary clinical interests. 


Topics: pneumonia, chronic bronchitis

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