Can You “Catch” Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

So your friend has bronchitis. Should you be worried about catching it? How about pneumonia? Is it contagious?

The answers can be a little confusing. Let's explain each condition to help clarify.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that there are two types of bronchitis:

Acute bronchitisis contagious. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. These are the airways that carry air to your lungs. Bronchitis causes a cough that often brings up mucus.

Bronchitis can cause:

  • Cough
  • Production of mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Low fever and chills
  • Fatigue

Most bronchitis is caused by viruses. The same viruses that cause colds and flu often cause acute bronchitis. These viruses spread through the air when people cough and through touch. This can happen when someone with the viruses on their hands touches a person or surface without washing their hands.

If the acute bronchitis is viral, antibiotics won’t help. Most of the time, viral acute bronchitis goes away within several days. Sometimes the cough can last several weeks after the infection goes away.

Occasionally, bacterial infections can also cause acute bronchitis. This tends to occur in people with weakened immune systems and in smokers.

Acute bronchitis can also be caused by exposure to tobacco smoke, dust, vapor, fumes or air pollution. Avoiding the irritants can resolve the condition.

To diagnose acute bronchitis, your health care provider will likely ask about your symptoms. The provider may also listen to your breathing. Some tests may also be ordered, but are rarely needed.

If you’re diagnosed with acute bronchitis, rest, fluids and aspirin or acetaminophen will be recommended. Honey is also a good natural cough suppressant. A humidifier or steam can also help. Inhaled medicine may help open airways if you’re wheezing.

If tests show the acute bronchitis is a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be prescribed.

Chronic bronchitisis not contagious. Like acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. However, chronic bronchitis is not caused by a virus or bacteria. Instead, chronic bronchitis is caused by long-term exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke, air pollution or dust. Chronic bronchitis lasts a few months or more.

Chronic bronchitis can keep coming back. It usually won’t go away completely until there’s no further exposure to the irritants that caused the bronchitis.

Since smoking is a common cause of chronic bronchitis, it’s important to quit smoking.

The signs of chronic bronchitis are similar to those of acute bronchitis (see above).

Diagnosis of chronic bronchitis will also involve your health care provider asking about your symptoms. Listening to your breathing will likely be part of the diagnosis. Tests may also be ordered.

Treatment will include eliminating exposure to irritants. Medicines may help open your airways and clear mucus. For some sufferers, oxygen therapy may be recommended. Pulmonary rehabilitation (a medically supervised program of exercise training and breathing techniques) may also be prescribed.

Pneumonia — can be contagious. Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs. Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. Bacteria are the most common cause. Pneumonia can also be caused by inhaling a liquid or chemical.

When the germs or irritants enter the lungs, they can overwhelm the immune system. In that case the delicate lung tissue can become infected. Once infected, the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid. This can cause coughing with phlegm and breathing problems.

Other signs of pneumonia include:

  • High fever
  • Chills that cause shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Fatigue or feeling worse after a cold or flu

To diagnose pneumonia, your health care provider will review your symptoms, your medical history and listen to your lungs. The provider may also recommend tests. If the pneumonia is caused by bacteria, your health care provider may prescribe an antibiotic. If the cause is a virus, an antibiotic will not help.

Pneumonia Comes in Different Types

Different bacteria can cause bacterial pneumonia. Pneumoccoal bacteria are a common cause of pneumonia. If you’re concerned about pneumococcal pneumonia, talk to your health care provider about the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine.

You may have heard of Legionnaire’s disease. This is severe type of pneumonia caused by a specific bacteria.

Walking pneumonia refers to mild cases of bacterial pneumonia. Symptoms are similar to a cold, including low fever, fatigue, shortness of breath and loss of appetite.

Viral pneumonia accounts for about a third of cases. It’s the most common cause of pneumonia in children younger than age five. Some vaccines are given to prevent these sorts of virus as well as bacteria in children.

The flu virus is the most common cause of viral pneumonia in adults.

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is a severe pneumonia. It’s caused by a type of virus that can cause the common cold.

Fungal pneumonia can be caused by fungi that live in soil. Most people who inhale fungi don’t get sick. Because of that, this type of pneumonia tends to be more prevalent in people with already weakened immune systems.

How You Can Stop the Spread of Germs

Washing hands can help prevent the spread of contagious diseases. This would include acute bronchitis and pneumonia caused by virus or bacteria. See how to wash your hands.

So, when someone close to you has bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands.

If you have questions about a possible contagious condition, check with your health care provider. You can find out if it’s contagious. You can also learn how long it might be contagious and what your risks could be.

Meet the Author

Vanessa L Abejuela-Matt, DO is a family practice physician at the Aurora Health Center in Racine, WI

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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