There are similarities between bronchiolitis and bronchitis though they are different conditions. For example, both conditions cause inflammation, but they do affect different areas of the lung.
The main difference between the two is that bronchitis involves inflammation of the airways leading to the windpipe, while bronchiolitis involves inflammation of the tiny airways branching off the bronchioles, called bronchioles.
Bronchiolitis also most often affects children and infants, while bronchitis is a common infection that occurs in people of all ages.
Keep reading to learn more about each condition’s variations including their causes, risk factors, and treatment options. This article also provides some useful tips to manage such infections.
It may be difficult for some people to tell the difference between bronchiolitis and bronchitis, because the symptoms are very similar. The areas which they affect, though, are different.
The severity of the symptoms can also vary greatly in both conditions, ranging from mild to serious.
Symptoms of both bronchiolitis and bronchitis generally include:
- a runny nose
- shortness of breath
- fever, usually below 101°F (38.3°C)
Different factors can lead to bronchiolitis, or bronchitis. The sections below go into more detail on these potential causes.
Bronchiolitis is the most common occurrence in young children according to the American Lung Association. Commonly, the cause is a virus.
Most common infectious agent in bronchiolitis is the respiratory syncytial virus. Although it may occur at any point in the year, in the winter months it is the most common.
A virus is also what typically causes acute bronchitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That said, a viral infection like a cold can turn into bronchitis in certain cases.
More commonly seen, bronchitis may result from bacterial infections.
On the other hand, chronic bronchitis usually develops over time as a result of smoking or exposure to environmental irritants such as smoke from biomass fuel or air pollution. This is a long-term condition too.
Respiratory infections, including bronchiolitis and bronchitis, have symptoms which are often quite similar. That can complicate the diagnosis.
That is why diagnosis sometimes involves ruling out other lung conditions, such as pneumonia and asthma, first.
Typically, the diagnosis of bronchitis and bronchiolitis will involve the doctor analyzing the medical history of the person and reviewing the symptoms thereof.
The doctor will also perform a physical examination, during which the oxygen levels will be measured and chest sounds listened. They may also undertake blood tests and a chest X-ray to check for signs of an infection in some instances.
A health care provider will conduct a test called a nasopharyngeal swab to treat bronchiolitis, which tests for the existence of the respiratory syncytial virus. It is the infection’s most frequent cause.
Bronchiolitis as well as bronchitis tend to require supporting treatment. Supportive treatment will focus on the symptom management and reduction.
In many cases, all that is needed is home treatment and the conditions usually resolve without complications.
The following treatments can also help though.
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.
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 common diseases that can develop by anyone. However for both cases there are some known risk factors.
These will be discussed in greater detail in the sections below.
Certain factors may increase the risk of developing bronchiolitis in a child. The following risk factors had been identified by research:
- premature birth
- an underlying lung condition
- congenital heart disease
- not being breastfed
- exposure to tobacco smoke
- maternal asthma
- a weakened immune system
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
Bronchiolitis and bronchitis complications are uncommon but likely.
Individuals with a weakened immune system, those with an underlying lung condition and older adults are at higher risk of complications arising.
The following sections list all possible bronchiolitis and bronchitis complications.
Hypoxia is one complication the bronchiolitis can cause. Hypoxia involves the low levels of oxygen in the body. Airway swelling can interfere with getting enough oxygen in the lungs.
The bronchiolitis can also cause respiratory failure. It can eventually lead to respiratory failure or an inability to adequately exchange gases, including oxygen and carbon dioxide, in the lungs if breathing becomes too hard.
Bronchitis can cause breathing difficulties. The swelling in the airways in particular can contribute to shortness of breath.
Pneumonia is also a potential complication related to severe bronchitis cases. Pneumonia entails a lung infection.
Other disorders can have symptoms similar to bronchiolitis and bronchitis. A correct diagnosis is important, as care for different conditions can vary greatly.
Some Bronchitis and Bronchiolitis-like conditions 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 lung-affecting conditions and leading to inflammation. They do affect various parts of the airways, however. Bronchitis involves the bronchi, with bronchiolitis involving the bronchioles, which are the smaller airways.
Typically both conditions develop as a result of a viral infection. Treatment will typically involve the symptom management and reduction.
Although complications can arise, most people with either condition can recover in a few weeks ‘ time.