Difference Between Asthma and Bronchitis

Contents

Introduction

Have you been coughing a lot recently, feeling out of breath, or experiencing a tightness in your chest? You may consider it to be normal, or “just allergies”, but the reality is, it could be much more severe. These may be symptoms of asthma or bronchitis, and would require your immediate attention.  

Causes of asthma and bronchitis

Although the definitive causes for asthma are still unknown, there are certain risk factors that may make you more likely to have asthma5

  • Allergies: If you are allergic to airborne things like dust, pollen, mould spores, pet hair and other things you can inhale, you have a higher risk of developing asthma.
  • Environment: If you have been exposed to an environment or particles that can potentially irritate the airways, you may be at risk of  developing asthma. An example of this would be any type of allergen, toxic, fumes (such as the fumes from mixing cleaning products), or even inhaling second and third hand smoke. This is particularly dangerous for babies and young children because constant exposure to these harmful environments can easily impair their developing immune systems.
  • Genetics: Another risk factor would be if asthma runs in the family. Having a genetic disposition to asthma of certain kinds of allergies can increase the risk of developing asthma as well.
  • Infections: There are some respiratory infections that are very harmful to the respiratory system, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and can severely damage the state of your lungs. This is especially risky with young children's lungs as their respiratory system is just developing.
  • Exercise: Some exercises are known to induce asthma under the circumstance of overexertion to the lungs during physical activity. 
  • Obesity: This can also increase your risk of developing asthma.

Bronchitis on the other hand can be when asthma worsens and becomes more severe6. Bronchitis is developed over a period of time when your cells are fighting an infection, rather than just inflammation. People with bronchitis may also have underlying health conditions, such as an autoimmune disorder or even cystic fibrosis. It is usually caused by a virus but also has similar causes like the causes mentioned above.

Symptoms of asthma and bronchitis

A feature of people with asthma is having frequent difficulty when breathing1,2,5. Other common symptoms include:

  • Having a tight feeling in the chest (as if a band is tightening around your chest, constricting your lung capacity)
  • Wheezing while breathing (indicating a swollen or affected airway)
  • Breathlessness
  • Coughing

If these symptoms are recurring, flare up early in the morning/late at night, happen in response to a trigger such as taxing exercise or airborne allergens, it is very likely that one will be diagnosed with asthma.

Bronchitis has similar symptoms, however, there is more intense mucus production, fatigue and feelings of a fever or chill2,6

Asthma can also flare up for a short moment in what we would call an ‘asthma attack’. This can develop suddenly or gradually over a few days. Some symptoms of asthma attacks are the worsening of wheezing, coughing an increased breathing rate (almost like hyperventilation), a faster heartbeat, drowsiness or confusion and dizziness, blue lips or fingers, and even fainting.

Diagnosis 

Asthma can easily be diagnosed by a variety of tests4. Firstly, your doctor will review your medical history. This is to make sure that any genetic predispositions are accounted for, so they would ask if your parents or siblings have asthma. They would also review your own personal clinical history by asking such questions as if you have any known allergies or have experienced any lung diseases. Based on this information, your doctor can order the following diagnostic tests to determine your condition: 

Spirometry

  • Spirometry is a test that measures the amount of air that flows through your lungs. It precisely measures how fast you can breathe in and out indicating how much air your lungs can hold. It is used to diagnose your condition and monitor your treatment efficacy.

Chest X-ray

  • Chest X-rays help to identify any abnormalities or infections in your lungs that could cause breathing difficulties.

Sputum tests

  • A doctor can analyse the sputum or mucus you produce when you cough to look for specific white blood cells called eosinophils which would be present in your mucus if you have asthma.

Treatment options for asthma and bronchitis

Both asthma and bronchitis can be treated with medication4,7. This can include corticosteroid inhalers, leukotriene modifiers, short-acting beta antagonists, and other condition-specific medications. Your doctor will recommend what is best for your situation.

Which is more dangerous?

Bronchitis is more dangerous considering that it is much more severe than asthma2. It has lasting effects on your respiratory system and can even turn into pneumonia if left untreated.

Can someone have asthma and bronchitis at the same time?

Although asthma and bronchitis have two very different origins, inflammation vs. infection, they have very similar symptoms and can occur at the same time. This would be called “asthmatic bronchitis” where you would notice that your asthmatic symptoms have become worse7.

Prevention

There is no specific way to prevent the development of asthma, as a majority of asthma triggers are out of your control, however, there are a number of steps you can take to prevent any future asthma attacks and to manage your condition.

  • Your doctor can help you develop an asthma care plan outlining a detailed plan of certain medications to help manage an asthma attack. This can also include the introduction of certain tools like an inhaler to help remedy the situation. Asthma is a recurring condition, so requires regular monitoring. Ensuring that you stay on top of your treatment plan can help you feel more at ease about having asthma.
  • Getting vaccinated for influenza and pneumonia can help to prevent flare ups that may be triggered from getting sick. It is your best defence against infections that can potentially harm your respiratory system.
  • Recognising and avoiding triggers in your life is a great prevention strategy5. If you identify an allergy to pet dander, try to stay away from furry animals. If you consistently get asthma flare ups while in a fume-filled or smoky environment, try to change to somewhere with cleaner air. Finding out the root cause of your asthma triggers will be beneficial to prevent further flare-ups.
  • Identifying the warning signs that an asthma attack is coming are also very important. Things like coughing, wheezing, or feeling out of breath could all signify an impending asthma attack. Due to the fact that your lung function might drastically reduce before you are able to notice any symptoms, you need to regularly monitor your breathing with an at-home peak flow metre7. It will measure how hard you can exhale and can easily indicate if anything is wrong.
  • Identifying your asthma attacks early reduces the need for strong medication to control the condition. After using an at home peak flow metre, you can take your medication and stop any activity that has triggered the asthma.
  • Finally, pay attention to how often a quick relief inhaler is used5. If you notice that it's being used more frequently than usual, this might mean that the asthma is still out of control. Make sure to discuss this with your doctor.

Summary

In conclusion, asthma and bronchitis are two diseases that are closely linked. They have similar symptoms, and both affect the respiratory system. It is always important to get checked by a doctor if any infection or abnormality is suspected to ensure you get the proper diagnosis and treatment.

References

  1. Asthma UK (2018). What causes asthma? | Asthma UK. [online] Asthma UK. Available at: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/understanding-asthma/causes/.
  2. EverydayHealth.com. (2019). Asthma, Bronchitis, or Asthmatic Bronchitis? | Everyday Health. [online] Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/asthma/bronchitis-or-asthma.aspx.
  3. Holland, K. (2016). Asthma and Bronchitis: Understanding the Link. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/asthma/asthma-bronchitis#prevention [Accessed 22 Jun. 2022].
  4. Mayo Clinic (2018). Asthma - Diagnosis and treatment - Mayo Clinic. [online] Mayoclinic.org. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20369660.
  5. NHS (2019). Treatment - Asthma. [online] NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/asthma/treatment/.
  6. NHS Choices (2019). Bronchitis. [online] NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchitis/.
  7. Watson, S. (2021). Asthmatic Bronchitis: Symptoms, Treatment, and More. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/asthma/asthmatic-bronchitis-symptoms-treatment.
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