Often, pneumonia begins after an upper respiratory tract infection (an infection
of the nose and throat), with symptoms starting after 2 or 3 days of a cold
or sore throat. It
then moves to the lungs. Fluid, white blood cells, and debris start to gather in the
air spaces of the lungs and block the smooth passage of air, making it harder for
the lungs to work well.
Kids with pneumonia caused by bacteria usually become sick fairly
quickly, starting with a sudden high fever and unusually fast breathing.
Kids with pneumonia caused by viruses probably will have symptoms
that appear more gradually and are less severe, though wheezing can be more common.
Some symptoms give important clues about which germ is causing the pneumonia. For
In older kids and teens, pneumonia due to Mycoplasma (also called walking pneumonia) is
very common. It causes a sore throat, headache, and rash in addition to the usual
symptoms of pneumonia.
When pneumonia is due to whooping
cough (pertussis), a child may have long coughing spells, turn blue from lack
of air, or make the classic "whoop" sound when trying to take a breath. Fortunately,
the pertussis vaccine can
help protect kids against whooping cough.
The length of time between exposure to the germ and when someone starts feeling
sick varies, depending on which germ caused the pneumonia (for instance, 4 to 6 days
for RSV, but just 18 to 72 hours for the flu).
How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?
Doctors usually make a pneumonia diagnosis after an exam. They'll check a child's
appearance, breathing pattern, and vital signs, and listen to the lungs for abnormal
sounds. They might order a chest
X-ray or blood tests, but neither are necessary to make the diagnosis.
How Is Pneumonia Treated?
In most cases, pneumonia is caused by a virus that does not require
antibiotics. Pneumonia caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics taken by mouth
at home. The type of antibiotic used depends on the type of bacteria thought to have
caused the pneumonia.
Antiviral medicine is now available too, but is reserved for the flu when found
early in the course of illness.
Children might need treatment in a hospital if the pneumonia causes a lasting high
fever, breathing problems, or if they:
need oxygen therapy
have a lung infection that may have spread to the bloodstream
have a chronic illness that affects the immune system
are vomiting so much that they cannot take medicine by mouth
keep getting pneumonia
might have whooping cough
Hospital treatment can include intravenous
(IV) antibiotics (given into a vein) and respiratory therapy (breathing treatments).
More severe cases might be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU).
How Can I Help My Child?
Anyone with pneumonia needs to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids while
the body works to fight the infection.
If your child has bacterial pneumonia and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, give
the medicine on schedule for as long as directed. This will help your child recover
faster and help prevent the infection from spreading to others in the family. For
wheezing, the doctor might recommend using a nebulizer or an inhaler.
Ask the doctor before you use a medicine to treat your child's cough. Cough suppressants
stop the lungs from clearing mucus, which isn't helpful for pneumonia. Over-the-counter
cough and cold medicines are not recommended for any kids under 6 years old.
Take your child's temperature
at least once each morning and each evening. Call the doctor if it goes above 102°F
(38.9°C) in an older infant or child, or above 100.4°F (38°C) in a baby
under 6 months old.
Check your child's lips and fingernails to make sure they are rosy and pink. Call
your doctor if they are bluish or gray, which is a sign that the lungs are not getting
How Long Does Pneumonia Last?
With treatment, most types of bacterial pneumonia are cured in 1–2 weeks.
Walking pneumonia and viral pneumonia may take 4–6 weeks to go away completely.
Is Pneumonia Contagious?
In general, pneumonia is not contagious, but the upper respiratory viruses and
bacteria that lead to it are. When these germs are in fluid from the mouth or nose
of someone who's infected, that person can spread the illness through coughs and sneezes.
Sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils, and touching the used tissues or
handkerchiefs of an infected person also can spread pneumonia. So it's best to keep
kids away from anyone with symptoms (stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, cough, etc.)
of a respiratory infection.
Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?
Some types of pneumonia can be prevented by vaccines.
Kids usually get routine immunizations against Haemophilus
influenzae pneumococcus and whooping cough beginning at 2 months of age.
The flu vaccine is recommended
for all healthy kids ages 6 months through 19 years, but especially for kids with
chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disorders or asthma.
Because they're at higher risk for serious complications, babies born
early may get treatments that temporarily protect against RSV because it can lead
to pneumonia in younger kids.
Doctors may give antibiotics to prevent pneumonia in kids who have been exposed
to someone with certain types of pneumonia, such as whooping cough. Those with HIV infection might get antibiotics
to prevent pneumonia caused by Pneumocystis jirovecii.
If someone in your home has a respiratory infection or throat infection, keep their
drinking glasses and eating utensils separate from those of other family members,
and wash your hands often,
especially if you're handling used tissues or dirty handkerchiefs.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call your doctor right away if your child has any of the signs of pneumonia, but
especially if he or she:
has trouble breathing or is breathing too fast
has a bluish or gray color to the fingernails or lips
has a fever of 102°F (38.9°C), or above 100.4°F (38°C) in babies
younger than 6 months old