What is the difference between bronchitis and bronchiolitis?

The human respiratory system is so much more than just allowing a person to breathe oxygen in the fresh air and to exhale carbon dioxide. Aside from the gas exchange, this system helps the human body to maintain acid-base balance, enabling people to talk through phonation and aid in the sense of smell. There can be many diseases that could affect the respiratory system which may show similar symptoms. In this DoctorOnCall’s article, we will learn about the differences between diseases that involve inflammation of the structure in the respiratory system which may seem similar in nature at a glance; bronchitis and bronchiolitis.


Bronchitis is inflammation of the main airway windpipe of the airways, called the bronchi.

Bronchitis is divided into two:

1)  Acute bronchitis- Commonly affects children under the age of 2. Typically caused by virus infection such as influenza virus A and B, parainfluenza and rhinovirus but in less common cases may be caused by bacterial infections such as Streptococcus pneumonia and Staphylococcus aureus. Those at risk for acute bronchitis include living in polluted and crowding areas, history of asthma and allergy.

2)  Chronic bronchitis- Commonly affects those above the age of 65. Typically caused by smoking or long-term exposure of environmental irritants such as air pollution. Those at risk for chronic bronchitis include smokers or history of smoking, long-term exposure to lung irritants, family history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and those with genetic condition of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

Common symptoms include frequent wet or dry coughing, sore throat, fever, headaches, body aches and fatigue. In severe cases, it may lead to weight loss, weakness in muscles and swelling of the lower limb.

Treatments for bronchitis are making sure the person is hydrated, cough medication, saline nose drops, bronchodilators and to have a good rest. Using a humidifier may actually help to add moisture in the air and loosen mucus.


Bronchiolitis is inflammation of the small airways that branch off from the bronchi, called the bronchioles.

Most commonly affect infants and young children.

Symptoms resemble common cold such as fever, sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose and cough. Other symptoms include rapid breathing, less hungry than usual and difficult to feed or eat, wheezing (high-pitched whistling sound) when breathing and easily irritable.

Bronchiolitis is caused by viral infection, usually the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It is most common in colder or winter months. RSV in older children and adults only leads to cough or cold but in young children it does lead to bronchiolitis.

Although in general all young children have the same risk for bronchiolitis, those at risk for severe bronchiolitis includes those born prematurely, diagnosed with heart or lung defects and weak immune systems (immunocompromised). Young children with these conditions need to be paid with extra care by bringing them to the emergency department when bronchiolitis symptoms are suspected.

Treatments for bronchiolitis are keeping the child hydrated, saline nasal drops or nasal spray and pain relief such as paracetamol. Frequent breastfeed or smaller amounts of formula can help prevent dehydration.

Conclusion: Bronchiolitis and bronchitis may have similar symptoms but often affect different age groups and affect different structures of the respiratory system. Treatments are not specific and aim to provide support aside from ease the symptoms. Usage of antibiotics is not recommended unless prescribed by doctors with indications of bacterial infections. Identifying risk and making adjustments in daily life such as smoking cessation, avoiding sitting next to smokers and less exposure to lung irritants by using protective gear such as wearing a face mask can greatly reduce likelihood of developing lung diseases. For severe cases, oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation may be offered.

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