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Can bronchitis come up as Covid?

Bronchitis and COVID-19 share some common symptoms, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the two illnesses based on symptoms alone. However, there are some key differences that may help determine if your respiratory illness is bronchitis or COVID-19.

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi, the main airways that lead to the lungs. It causes coughing, often with mucus, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath. Bronchitis can be acute or chronic.

Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly and lasts for up to three weeks. It’s usually caused by a viral infection like the common cold or flu. Sometimes it’s caused by bacteria. Smoking, inhaled irritants, or lung damage from other diseases can also cause acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition defined by a persistent cough that lasts at least three months for two years in a row. It’s commonly caused by smoking and leads to inflammation and mucus buildup that narrows the airways and makes breathing difficult.

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

The most common symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Cough, often productive with mucus
  • Wheezing when breathing
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low fever under 100.4°F (38°C)
  • Chills
  • Sore throat (more common with acute bronchitis)
  • Body aches (more common with acute bronchitis)
  • Fatigue

Symptoms typically last around 1-3 weeks for acute bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis symptoms are ongoing.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a coronavirus first identified in 2019. It primarily spreads through respiratory droplets passed between people in close contact. It can cause mild to severe respiratory illness.

COVID-19 symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure. They range from very mild to critical:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle/body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Most cases are mild with symptoms recovering within 1-2 weeks. But some people develop severe complications like pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis, inflammation disorders, and blood clots. These can become life-threatening.

How are bronchitis and COVID-19 connected?

There are some key overlaps between bronchitis and COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Low fever under 100.4°F (38°C)
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches

This makes it challenging to distinguish the two illnesses based on symptoms alone, especially in mild cases. Some key differences in symptoms can help tell them apart:

Symptom Bronchitis COVID-19
Fever over 100.4°F (38°C) Uncommon Common
Cough with mucus Common Less common
Sore throat Sometimes Sometimes
Headache Uncommon Common
Loss of taste/smell No Sometimes
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea No Sometimes

But because symptom overlap is considerable, testing is needed to confirm whether an illness is bronchitis, COVID-19 or something else.

Can bronchitis be mistaken for COVID-19?

Yes, bronchitis can be mistaken for COVID-19, especially when:

  • Symptoms are mild
  • No test is done to confirm COVID-19
  • The person has been exposed to others with COVID-19
  • COVID-19 is circulating widely in the community

With similar respiratory symptoms and unknown exposure, it’s impossible to distinguish bronchitis from COVID-19 without testing.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis from a respiratory virus often produces symptoms like mild COVID-19: cough, low fever, fatigue and sore throat. Without testing, it may be assumed any mild respiratory illness during peak COVID-19 times is likely COVID-19.

Chronic bronchitis

In people with chronic bronchitis, a flare-up of their regular cough and wheezing symptoms may be mistaken for COVID-19. But typical COVID-19 symptoms like fever, body aches and headaches are unusual with a bronchitis flare-up.

Can COVID-19 be mistaken for bronchitis?

Yes, mild to moderate COVID-19 can be mistaken for bronchitis. Without testing, it may be assumed a respiratory illness with cough, fever and shortness of breath is acute bronchitis rather than COVID-19.

However, some key features may point more to COVID-19 than bronchitis:

  • Exposure to someone with known COVID-19
  • Fever over 100.4°F (38°C)
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste/smell
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

If there is known COVID-19 exposure or symptoms not typical of bronchitis, COVID-19 is more likely. Testing should be done to confirm.

Can you have bronchitis and COVID-19 together?

It’s possible to have acute bronchitis and COVID-19 at the same time. A few scenarios where this could occur:

  • Acute bronchitis from a cold or flu virus, followed by COVID-19 infection. The illnesses occur back-to-back.
  • Simultaneous infection with SARS-CoV-2 and another respiratory virus like the flu.
  • SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers bronchitis symptoms like mucus production and cough in addition to other COVID-19 symptoms.

In these cases, the respiratory symptoms of both illnesses overlap and may appear worse than either single infection.

How can you know if bronchitis is COVID-19?

The only way to confirm whether an illness with bronchitis-like symptoms is COVID-19 is through testing. There are two main options:

COVID-19 viral test

A COVID-19 viral test detects current SARS-CoV-2 infection. A nasal swab or saliva sample can be used. Results take 15 minutes to a few days. A positive viral test confirms COVID-19 as the cause of symptoms.

COVID-19 antibody test

A COVID-19 antibody test looks for antibodies made by the immune system in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A blood sample is used. Results come back in 15-30 minutes. A positive antibody test means you likely had COVID-19 in the recent past.

Viral testing is recommended to diagnose current COVID-19 illness. But for mild illness that has resolved, an antibody test can help determine if symptoms were actually due to COVID-19.

When to see a doctor

Contact your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of bronchitis or COVID-19, especially:

  • Cough not improving after 1 week
  • Worsening or severe symptoms like high fever or breathing difficulties
  • Underlying lung disease like COPD or asthma
  • Risk factors for complications like age over 65, weak immune system, obesity, diabetes or chronic conditions

Seeking care early can help diagnose and monitor your condition. Your doctor may recommend medications, oxygen support or other therapy for symptom relief. For suspected COVID-19, prompt isolation and testing are important to prevent spread.

How are bronchitis and COVID-19 treated?

There are no specific treatments that can cure bronchitis or COVID-19 infections. Care focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing complications:

Bronchitis treatment

  • Rest and hydration
  • Over-the-counter cough medicine
  • Prescription cough medications or inhalers for severe cough
  • Pain and fever relievers like acetaminophen
  • Antibiotics for bacterial bronchitis

Most acute bronchitis resolves on its own within a few weeks.

COVID-19 treatment

  • Rest and hydration
  • Over-the-counter medications for fever, cough, pain
  • Monitoring oxygen levels with pulse oximeter
  • Oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation if needed
  • Anticoagulants or steroids for certain complications
  • New antiviral drugs in appropriate cases

Most people recover from COVID-19 at home. But hospitalization may be required for severe illness or breathing problems.

How to prevent bronchitis and COVID-19

Good hygiene and healthy habits can help prevent respiratory illnesses like bronchitis and COVID-19:

  • Get recommended vaccines like the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccines
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap isn’t available
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow
  • Avoid close contact with sick individuals
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke
  • Drink plenty of fluids and eat a balanced diet
  • Keep chronic medical conditions under control
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Monitor local COVID-19 levels and follow appropriate masks/distancing recommendations


Bronchitis and COVID-19 have overlapping symptoms like cough, shortness of breath and fever. Mild cases of either illness can be mistaken for the other on symptoms alone. Testing with a COVID-19 viral or antibody test is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Seeking prompt medical care and testing is advised if you develop respiratory illness symptoms, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With treatment focused on symptom relief and prevention centered on vaccines and healthy hygiene habits, both illnesses can usually be managed at home.