Pediatric HealthSource: Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia

Melissa Winterhalter

Q: My daughter keeps catching colds this winter. When she gets over one illness, she catches another. When should I be concerned that she may have more than a common cold, and how can I tell larger illnesses apart?

A: In winter months, the indoors serve as a playground for both children and germs. Sometimes, the two get along a little too well. With all the coughing and sneezing in close quarters, it can be hard to distinguish a common cold from a more serious condition. If it is more than the sniffles, a diagnosis can be challenging.

Pneumonia and bronchitis—defined as an upper respiratory infection in older children and bronchiolitis in children younger than 2 years old—are two conditions often confused with one another. Both present with a dry cough, chest pain, chills and shortness of breath—symptoms that cause them to be mistaken formany colds and other conditions. However, the impact on the body is significantly different for these illnesses.

Viral illness and bronchiolitis occur in children with chronic sinusitis or allergies. It usually goes away within a few weeks; however, if left untreated, symptoms can develop into pneumonia, presenting more serious health concerns.

Pneumonia is spread by infected people who carry the bacteria in their throat, nose or mouth. Children under the age of 2 are at highest risk, and parents are encouraged to get their children vaccinated for prevention.

Many symptoms of pneumonia are similar to bronchitis. In addition, pneumonia includes fever, headache and fatigue. For both illnesses, proper diagnosis and treatment is crucial to a quick recovery.

Always consult your child's pediatrician concerning your child's health.

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Melissa Winterhalter, M.D., is an ambulatory physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Tip of the Month

Keep Colds at Bay

Pneumonia and bronchitis often stem from a common cold. To help prevent them, parents should know:

  • The word “common” is in the name for a reason. Most children will have at least six to eight colds a year, and children who attend day care will get more. After age 6, colds may occur less often.
  • Germs want to be your child's best friend and your worst enemy. Children often get colds because of their weak immune systems, close contact with others and frequent hand-to-mouth contact. Try to keep your children away from people with a cold, and remind them not to touch their eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Don't forget to wash your hands! Teach children to wash their hands often and carry hand sanitizer for times when soap and water aren't available.