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Bronchitis vs. Cold: Signs and Symptoms

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You’re feeling fatigued and starting to cough. You’ve also got a runny nose and a low-grade fever. So, how can you tell if these are common cold symptoms or bronchitis symptoms? Or could it be Covid-19? Please continue reading to learn more about cold versus flu. Find out the difference between a common cold, sore throat, and bronchitis signs and symptoms. 

What is the common cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). Symptoms can include a runny or stuffy nose and a mild fever. Most colds are harmless and healthy adults can have up to 2-3 colds a year. 

Many different viruses can cause the common cold. Most people recover in 7-10 days without requiring medical attention, however, cold symptoms can last longer in smokers. You should seek medical care if your symptoms are getting worse or do not improve in a week or so. 

What is a chest cold?

The bronchi are the airways or breathing tubes in the lungs. A chest cold, also called acute bronchitis, is an infection of the bronchi. The same viruses that cause upper respiratory infections can also cause acute bronchitis. Sometimes, bacteria can also cause acute bronchitis. 

During acute bronchitis, the airways in the lungs become swollen and produce mucus, causing a bothersome cough. The symptoms usually last for 3 weeks or less. Besides coughing with or without mucus, other symptoms can include slight fever, sore throat, chest soreness, mild headache, fatigue, and body aches.

Acute bronchitis usually clears on its own in a few days to weeks. Antibiotics are not recommended to treat acute bronchitis in most cases, not even bacterial bronchitis. However, you should get professional medical care if you have:

  • High fever (higher than 100.4 Fahrenheit)
  • Cough with discolored mucus or bloody mucus
  • Shortness of breath, chest tightness, or trouble breathing
  • Symptoms lasting more than three weeks
  • Repeated attacks of bronchitis

Do I have a cold or acute bronchitis?

If you know the difference between a cold and bronchitis, you can recognize the two conditions and treat them accordingly. 

The main difference is that a common cold is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract. Bronchitis, on the other hand, is an inflammation and infection of the bronchial tubes in the lungs or lower respiratory tract. Therefore, a cold affects your nose and sinuses while bronchitis affects the airways in your lungs. 

Do I have bronchitis or pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. People with bronchitis can go on to develop pneumonia. Those with chronic medical conditions are more prone to getting pneumonia. 

Pneumonia is a serious medical condition that requires a person to be medically reviewed and treated. Please see a doctor if you have symptoms of pneumonia such as severe coughing with green, yellow, or bloody mucus; fever; shortness of breath; chest pain; fatigue; and low energy.

How do you know if you have bronchitis or just a cough and sore throat?

A sore throat (pharyngitis) involves irritation, pain, and scratchiness that is often worse when you swallow. It is often accompanied by a cough with or without mucus. The most common cause is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. A viral sore throat clears on its own in about a week. A less common type of sore throat called Strep throat (Streptococcal) is a bacterial infection that requires treatment with antibiotics

As mentioned above, acute bronchitis is usually a viral and sometimes a bacterial infection of the bronchial tubes or airways. You experience symptoms of bronchitis less in the throat and more in the chest and lungs. Most cases of acute bronchitis go away in 7-10 days with rest and fluids. Antibiotics are not useful in treating acute bronchitis. However, if your symptoms last beyond 3 weeks, you should get professional medical advice.

What does the start of bronchitis feel like?

Common symptoms of acute bronchitis include chest soreness, non-productive or productive cough, tiredness, body aches, chills, and low-grade fever. 

What is chronic bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is a long-lasting inflammation of the airways. It is not caused by a virus or bacteria. The primary cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. The occupational environment and polluted air can also play a role. 

People who have chronic bronchitis often have a nagging cough. They are more prone to getting lung infections. They also can have worsening symptoms with attacks of acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is a broad group of lung diseases in which airflow in the lungs is blocked, causing shortness of breath and breathing problems. 

To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, a person must cough and produce mucus for at least 3 months out of the 12 months in a year for two successive years. Also, a healthcare provider must rule out other chronic medical conditions like tuberculosis.

Are the symptoms of Covid 19 and bronchitis similar? 

Both acute bronchitis and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses and can have similar symptoms. Acute bronchitis (chest cold) is caused by many different types of viruses and can develop after a common cold or upper respiratory infection. COVID-19 is caused by a type of coronavirus which has caused the global pandemic in 2020 and beyond.

Symptoms that are common to acute bronchitis and COVID-19 include cough, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, fever, chills, and body aches. COVID-19 can also cause symptoms such as loss of smell, loss of taste, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

How to treat a common cold or acute bronchitis at home?

Antibiotics are not recommended to treat or cure a common cold or chest cold (acute bronchitis). You simply have to let them run their course and allow your immune system to do its job. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can do several things for symptom relief, including:

  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) saline nasal spray or drops or take nasal decongestants to reduce inflammation and help with symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose.
  • Take acetaminophen for a low-grade fever.
  • Suck on lozenges for relief from cough and sore throat. Do not give lozenges to children younger than 4 years old.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier to add moisture to the air for easier breathing.
  • Inhale steam in the shower or from a bowl of hot water to open up the airways.
  • Take vitamin C supplements to help strengthen your immune system. 

While acute bronchitis and common colds usually resolve on their own, if your symptoms worsen or don’t get better with time, get in touch with a healthcare professional who can provide medical advice.


  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-bronchitis#
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/acute-bronchitis
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/bronchitis.html#
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605