What is the difference between a cold, bronchitis and pneumonia?

Sniffling. Coughing. Maybe a fever.

Whatever it is, you feel miserable. But is it just a cold – or something more?

Colds are among the most common health problems, collectively accounting for 40 percent of all lost work time in the U.S. The average U.S. adult catches two or three colds every year, most often between September and April.

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While most colds are minor and go away on their own with rest and fluids, symptoms overlap with more serious ailments, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. For example, all three can cause fatigue, but only pneumonia might include a high fever, chills or nausea.

How do you know if you should see your physician?


A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, primarily the nose and throat. Colds can’t be cured by antibiotics – typically they’ll go away in a few days with extra rest and plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicine can help reduce your symptoms, but it won’t cure the cold.

Symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Cough (without mucus)
  • Fatigue


Bronchitis is usually a viral infection of the bronchial tubes, so you’ll experience it less in your nose and more in your lungs. Just like colds, most cases of bronchitis can’t be treated by antibiotics, and it will usually go away in seven to 10 days with extra rest and fluids.

Bronchitis is marked by:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Cough (with or without mucus)
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain


Pneumonia stems from fluid in the lungs caused by a viral, bacterial or fungal infection. Pneumonia can be serious and requires treatment from your physician.

Symptoms include:

  • Cough (with or without mucus)
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • High-grade fever
  • Shaking or chills
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

Whether you have a cold, bronchitis or pneumonia, you should see your physician right away if you have difficulty breathing, experience chest pain, spike a fever of 102 degrees or higher, or have a cough with discolored mucus or blood.

The best way to avoid missing work for these respiratory illnesses is to prevent catching one in the first place. Make sure to wash your hands and avoid close contact with anyone who has symptoms.

Strengthen your immune system by getting plenty of sleep and exercise, eating a balanced diet and managing stress. If you smoke, quitting also will help you significantly strengthen your immune system.

See your physician

If your symptoms aren’t easing or if you are concerned that you may have pneumonia, your physician can help. If you’re in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top physicians in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.

pneumonia infographic