Asthma or Bronchitis?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Bronchitis is a condition in which your airways get inflamed. It can look similar to asthma. Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is common and improves within a few weeks. Chronic bronchitis can last many months. Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).1

Asthma and bronchitis can cause breathing problems and coughing. But they are different conditions with different causes. An accurate diagnosis is important. It will allow you to get the right treatment as soon as possible.2

If you have asthma or bronchitis symptoms, talk to your doctor. Tell them about your symptoms and triggers. They will ask about your history of asthma and allergies. They may perform lung function tests or other tests. They will try to diagnose whether you have asthma or bronchitis.3

Causes of asthma versus bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is one of the most common conditions that doctors see. It is usually caused by viral infections. Infections can come from influenza, coronavirus, or respiratory syncytial virus, among other viruses. Some bacterial infections may cause acute bronchitis. Your doctor may test you for infections if they think you have acute bronchitis.1,3

People with asthma or other breathing conditions sometimes have a higher risk of chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by infections or irritants in the environment. The most common causes of chronic bronchitis are:2,3

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Chemical fumes
  • Air pollution
  • Dust
  • Low-level infections

Irritants in your environment (environmental exposures) also play a role in asthma, as do genetics. For example, you are more likely to have asthma if:4

  • Your parents have asthma or allergies
  • You had respiratory infections as a child
  • You have had allergies or eczema
  • You are exposed to irritants at work
  • You are exposed to tobacco smoke

Symptoms of asthma versus bronchitis

The main symptoms of asthma include:4

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness

Coughing is the main symptom of bronchitis. It is how your body tries to get rid of mucus in the airways. Bronchitis may have other symptoms, including:2,3

  • Production of mucus when coughing
  • Symptoms of a common cold (headache, congestion, sore throat)
  • Wheezing and mild shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Fatigue

A big difference in symptoms between asthma and bronchitis is when they occur:2

  • If you have asthma, your symptoms may come and go with exposure to certain triggers
  • Acute bronchitis symptoms last for a few days or weeks
  • Chronic bronchitis symptoms last months to years

These are not all the possible symptoms of asthma or bronchitis. Symptoms are different for every person. And you may not show all symptoms of asthma or bronchitis. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you experience.3,4

Asthma versus bronchitis triggers

Asthma symptoms are triggered by something in the environment. Triggers are different for everyone but can include:4

  • Dust and mold
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen
  • Air pollution and smoke
  • Weather changes
  • Cockroaches
  • Scents or cleaning solutions

Bronchitis symptoms can also be triggered by environmental exposures. Infections trigger acute bronchitis. Irritants are the most common triggers of chronic bronchitis. These could be things like pollution and cigarette smoke.2,3

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How asthma and bronchitis are treated

Acute bronchitis usually gets better on its own. Most people do not need a drug prescription. For example, antibiotics do not usually help to get rid of acute bronchitis unless you also have pneumonia. Instead, your doctor may recommend:1

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking lots of fluids
  • Taking pain relievers
  • Taking cough suppressants
  • Using medicines to help clear mucus

Chronic bronchitis and asthma often have similar treatments. Treatment involves medicine and lifestyle changes, such as avoiding triggers. The goals of treatment are to reduce inflammation and open the airway.1,3,4

Doctors may use medicines differently for asthma or bronchitis. The right drug for you depends on many factors. Common treatments for asthma include:1,3-5

  • Short-acting or long-acting bronchodilators (drugs that relax the tissue in your lungs)
  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Allergy shots
  • Beta-agonists
  • Leukotriene modifiers
  • Theophylline

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