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Pneumonia

You may associate pneumonia with dramatic movie scenes involving prolonged hospital stays, oxygen tents, and family members whispering in bedside huddles. It's true that pneumonia can be serious. But more often pneumonia is an infection that can be easily treated at home without having to go to the hospital.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia (pronounced: noo-MOW-nyuh) is an infection of the lungs. When someone has pneumonia, lung tissue can fill with pus and other fluid, which makes it difficult for oxygen in the lung's air sacs (alveoli) to reach the bloodstream. With pneumonia, a person may have difficulty breathing and have a cough and fever; occasionally, chest or abdominal pain and vomiting are symptoms, too.

Pneumonia is often caused by viruses, such as the influenza virus (flu) and adenovirus. Other viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human metapneumovirus, are common causes of pneumonia in young kids and babies.

Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause pneumonia, too. People with bacterial pneumonia are usually sicker than those with viral pneumonia, but they can be treated with antibiotic medications.

pneumonia illustration

You might have heard the terms "double pneumonia" or "walking pneumonia." Double pneumonia simply means that the infection is in both lungs. It's common for pneumonia to affect both lungs, so don't worry if your doctor says this is what you have — it doesn't mean you're twice as sick.

Walking pneumonia refers to pneumonia that is mild enough that you may not even know you have it. Walking pneumonia (also called atypical pneumonia because it's different from the typical bacterial pneumonia) is common in teens and is often caused by a tiny microorganism, Mycoplasma pneumoniae (pronounced: my-co-PLAZ-ma noo-MO-nee-ay). Like the typical bacterial pneumonia, walking pneumonia also can be treated with antibiotics.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

It's common for a person with pneumonia to start out with something milder like a cough or sore throat — which also can happen in other infections. But pneumonia is a bit worse because the infection goes down into the lungs.

A person with pneumonia might have these symptoms:

  • fever (usually a temperature above 101°F/38.5°C)
  • chills
  • cough
  • very fast breathing (a person might use the belly or neck muscles to help him or her breathe)
  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing
  • chest or abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite
  • exhaustion
  • vomiting and dehydration

When pneumonia is caused by bacteria, a person tends to become sick quickly, develop a high fever, and have difficulty breathing. When it's caused by a virus, the illness comes on more gradually and might be less severe.

Someone's symptoms can help the doctor identify the type of pneumonia. Mycoplasma pneumoniae, for example, often causes headaches, sore throats, and rash in addition to the symptoms listed above.

Can I Prevent Pneumonia?

The routine vaccinations that most people receive as kids help prevent certain types of pneumonia and other infections. If you have a chronic illness, such as sickle cell disease, you may have received extra vaccinations and disease-preventing antibiotics to help prevent pneumonia and other infections caused by bacteria.

People should get a pneumococcal vaccination if they have diseases that affect their immune system (like diabetes, HIV infection, or cancer), are 65 years or older, or are in other high-risk groups. Depending on the bugs that are likely to affect them, these people also may get antibiotics to prevent pneumonia, as well as antiviral medicine to prevent or lessen the effects of viral pneumonia.

Doctors recommend that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot. That's because someone with the flu could then come down with pneumonia. Call your doctor's office or check your local health department to see when these vaccines are available.

Because pneumonia is often caused by germs, a good way to prevent it is to keep your distance from anyone you know who has pneumonia or other respiratory infections. Use separate drinking glasses and eating utensils; wash your hands often with warm, soapy water; and avoid touching used tissues and paper towels.

You also can stay strong and help avoid some of the illnesses that might lead to pneumonia by eating as healthily as possible, getting a minimum of 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, and not smoking.

How Long Does It Last?

It takes a certain amount of time to start to feel sick after getting exposed to a germ. This length of time is called the incubation period, and it depends on many things, especially which bug is causing the illness.

With influenza pneumonia, for example, someone may become sick as soon as 12 hours or as long as 3 days after exposure to the flu virus. But with walking pneumonia, a person may not feel it until 2 to 3 weeks after becoming infected.

Most types of pneumonia clear up within a week or two, although a cough can linger for several weeks more. In severe cases, it may take longer to completely recover.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

If you think you may have pneumonia, tell a parent or other adult and be sure you see a doctor. Pay attention to your breathing; if you have chest pain or trouble breathing or if your lips or fingers look blue, go to a doctor's office or to a hospital emergency department right away.

How Is Pneumonia Treated?

If doctors think a person has pneumonia, they will do a physical exam and might order a chest X-ray and blood tests. People with bacterial or atypical pneumonia will probably be given antibiotics to take at home. The doctor also will recommend getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

Some people with pneumonia need to be hospitalized to get better — usually babies, young kids, and people older than 65. However, hospital care may be needed for a teen who:

  • already has immune system problems
  • has cystic fibrosis
  • is dangerously dehydrated or is vomiting a lot and can't keep fluids and medicine down
  • has had pneumonia many times
  • has skin that's blue or pale, which is a sign that the lungs are not getting enough oxygen.

When pneumonia patients are hospitalized, treatment might include intravenous (IV) antibiotics (delivered through a needle inserted into a vein) and respiratory therapy (breathing treatments). In more severe cases, people might need to go to the intensive care unit (ICU).

How Can I Help Myself Feel Better?

If your doctor has prescribed medicine, follow the directions carefully.

You may feel better in a room with a humidifier, which increases the moisture in the air and soothes irritated lungs. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids, especially if you have a fever. If you have a fever and feel uncomfortable, ask the doctor whether you can take over-the-counter (OTC) medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring it down. But don't take any medicine without checking first with your doctor — a cough suppressant, for example, may not allow your lungs to clear themselves of mucus.

And finally, be sure to rest. This is a good time to sleep, watch TV, read, and lay low. If you treat your body right, it will repair itself and you'll be back to normal in no time.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014