Bronchitis and whooping cough are two respiratory conditions that have similar symptoms. This similarity makes it particularly challenging to diagnose one over the other. Despite their similar symptoms, the two conditions differ in their causes, their diagnostic testing and their treatment. Consult your health-care provider rather than attempt a self-diagnosis of these respiratory conditions.
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The term "bronchitis" refers to an inflammation of the bronchi, the airway tubes that bring oxygen into the lungs. The two types of bronchitis are acute and chronic. According to the American Lung Association, acute bronchitis can be caused by viruses and bacteria, including the bacterium that causes the whooping cough. Symptoms of acute bronchitis include cough with production of yellow-green phlegm, fever, shortness of breath and chest discomfort. Chronic bronchitis is a condition in which a person has a long-term cough with mucus production. According to Medline Plus, smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. Symptoms include cough with or without phlegm, fatigue, shortness of breath and wheezing. The main difference is that acute bronchitis goes away after several days or weeks, while chronic bronchitis usually lasts months.
Whooping cough is a lung infection caused by a specific bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. Accordingly, the other name for the whooping cough is pertussis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of the whooping cough begin with an upper respiratory infection, accompanied by runny nose and congestion. Infected people eventually develop the characteristic cough, which comes in a series of coughing fits that leave you breathless and force you to inhale air forcefully, producing the characteristic “whoop.” Other symptoms include fever, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Bronchitis or whooping cough can be diagnosed in several ways. The diagnosis for bronchitis is mostly clinical, meaning that the symptoms of phlegm-producing cough, fever and a history of a recent respiratory infection or smoking help in the diagnosis. When a health provider listens to the chest of someone with bronchitis, he will likely hear wheezing, a high-pitched noise on exhalation of air, or rhonchi, a coarse, rattling sound in the chest. A chest X-ray can sometimes help with the diagnosis of bronchitis. People with pertussis may also have rhonchi, but the characteristic cough and whoop usually give away the diagnosis. Several laboratory tests can help diagnose pertussis, usually based on a sample of the secretions in the back of the throat.
The treatment of bronchitis and the whopping cough are also different. According to the American Lung Association, supportive care with fluids and fever-reducing medicines is the main treatment for acute bronchitis. Occasionally, cough medications, humidifiers or inhaled bronchodilators are used, although a recent Cochrane review of the medical literature suggests the latter are not necessary. The treatment for chronic bronchitis is the same, with the addition of smoking cessation strategies when appropriate. Antibiotics may be necessary, especially if a patient with bronchitis develops pneumonia. According to national guidelines, antibiotics should be reserved for patients with at least one key symptom -- for example, increased shortness of breath or sputum production -- and one risk factor -- for example age older than 65 years. For whooping cough, the treatment is antibiotics. Really young or elderly patients with the whopping cough may need hospitalization with oxygen, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and other supportive treatments.