Bronchiolitis vs. bronchitis: What’s the difference?

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Although they are different conditions, there are similarities between bronchiolitis and bronchitis. Both conditions cause inflammation, for example, but they affect different areas of the lung.

The key difference between the two is that bronchitis inflammation of the airways that involves the windpipe, whereas bronchiolitis is the inflammation of the small airways that branch off the bronchi, called the bronchioles.

Also, bronchiolitis most often affects babies and young children, while bronchitis is a common infection that occurs in people of all ages.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between each condition, including their causes, risk factors, and treatment options. This article also provides some helpful tips for managing these infections.

Some people may find it difficult to tell the difference between bronchiolitis and bronchitis because the symptoms are very similar. However, the areas they affect are different.

The severity of the symptoms in both conditions can also vary greatly, ranging from mild to severe.

In general, symptoms of both bronchiolitis and bronchitis include the following:

  • a runny nose
  • cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • fever, usually below 101°F (38.3°C)

Various factors may lead to bronchiolitis or bronchitis. The sections below cover these potential causes in more detail.

Bronchiolitis

According to the American Lung Association, bronchiolitis occurs most commonly in young children. The cause is usually a virus.

The respiratory syncytial virus is the most common infectious agent in bronchiolitis. Although it can occur at any point in the year, it is most common in the winter months.

Acute bronchitis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)a virus is also what usually causes acute bronchitis.

That said, in some cases, a viral infection such as a cold can develop into bronchitis.

Less commonly, bacterial infections can lead to bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, usually develops over time due to smoking or exposure to environmental irritants, such as biomass fuel smoke or air pollution. This is also a long-term condition.

Respiratory infections, including bronchiolitis and bronchitis, often have very similar symptoms. This can make diagnosis difficult.

For this reason, diagnosis sometimes involves first ruling out other lung conditions, such as pneumonia and asthma.

Typically, the diagnosis of both bronchitis and bronchiolitis will involve the doctor analyzing the person’s medical history and reviewing their symptoms.

The doctor will also perform a physical exam, during which they will measure oxygen levels and listen to chest sounds. In some instances, they may also perform blood tests and a chest X-ray to check for signs of an infection.

To diagnose bronchiolitis, a health professional will perform a test called a nasopharyngeal swab, which checks for the presence of the respiratory syncytial virus. This is the most common cause of the infection.

Both bronchiolitis and bronchitis tend to require supportive treatment. Supportive treatment will focus on managing and reducing the symptoms.

In many cases, home treatment is all that is needed, and the conditions usually resolve without complications.

However, the following treatments may also help.

Bronchiolitis

A person can relieve the symptoms of bronchiolitis by:

  • Using saline nose drops: Over-the-counter saline nose drops may help reduce nasal congestion. Place a few drops into one nostril and use a bulb suction to remove any mucus.
  • Sleeping upright: Sleeping with the head elevated can make it easier for a person to breathe.
  • Trying oxygen therapy: In children with low oxygen levels who require hospitalization, oxygen therapy may help. Research Indicates that the use of oxygen support with a high flow nasal cannula may decrease airway resistance and deliver airway pressure, making it easier to breathe.

Bronchitis

A person can relieve the symptoms of bronchitis by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids: Staying hydrated helps loosen mucus in the chest, making it easier to breathe.
  • Resting: Getting enough rest is crucial in allowing the body to heal.
  • Trying saline nose drops: These can also help relieve some of the symptoms of bronchitis.
  • Using a humidifier: These add moisture to the air, loosening mucus and making it easier for a person to breathe.
  • Taking cough medication: Taking medications to suppress the cough associated with bronchitis may be helpful. In some instances, a doctor may only recommend taking them at night to aid better sleep.
  • Using bronchodilators: Medications such as albuterol can open up the airways to make it easier to breathe.

Bronchitis and bronchiolitis are both widespread infections that anyone can develop. However, there are some identifiable risk factors for both conditions.

The sections below will cover these in more detail.

Bronchiolitis

Certain factors can increase a child’s risk of developing bronchiolitis. Research has identified the following risk factors:

  • premature birth
  • an underlying lung condition
  • congenital heart disease
  • not being breastfed
  • exposure to tobacco smoke
  • maternal pride
  • a weakened immune system

Bronchitis

Some risk factors for bronchitis include:

  • an underlying lung condition, such as asthma
  • coming into close contact with someone who has a cold
  • a weakened immune system
  • exposure to cigarette smoke and air pollution

Complications from bronchiolitis and bronchitis are rare but possible.

People with a weakened immune system, those with an underlying lung condition, and older adults have an increased risk of developing complications.

The following sections list some potential complications from bronchiolitis and bronchitis.

Bronchiolitis

Hypoxia is one complication that can arise from bronchiolitis. Hypoxia involves low oxygen levels in the body. Swelling in the airways may interfere with getting enough oxygen in the lungs.

Respiratory failure can also result from bronchiolitis. When breathing becomes too difficult, it can eventually lead to respiratory failure or an inability to adequately exchange gases, including oxygen and carbon dioxide, in the lungs.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis can lead to difficulty breathing. Specifically, the swelling in the airways may lead to shortness of breath.

Pneumonia is also a possible complication associated with severe cases of bronchitis. Pneumonia involves an infection in the lungs.

Other conditions may have some of the same symptoms as bronchiolitis and bronchitis. It is essential to get a correct diagnosis, since treatment can vary greatly for different conditions.

Some conditions similar to bronchitis and bronchiolitis include:

  • Bronchiectasis: This is a long-term condition that involves a thickening of the bronchi walls due to chronic inflammation. Symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Asthma: This is a long-term lung condition that involves narrowing and inflammation of the airways. Symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.
  • Emphysema: This is a condition that develops due to damage to the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli. Symptoms include increased mucus, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Bronchiolitis and bronchitis are both conditions that affect the lungs and lead to inflammation. However, they affect different parts of the airways. Bronchitis involves the bronchi, and bronchiolitis involves the bronchioles, which are the smaller airways.

Both conditions usually develop due to a viral infection. Treatment will typically involve managing and reducing the symptoms.

Although complications can develop, most people with either condition will recover within a few weeks.

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