What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia (pronounced: (nu-MOH-nyuh) is an infection of the lungs. Lung tissue can fill with pus and other fluid, which makes it hard for oxygen to reach the bloodstream. A person with pneumonia may have trouble breathing and have a cough and fever. Occasionally, chest or belly pain and vomiting are symptoms too.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Pneumonia?
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.
Someone with pneumonia might have:
- a fever (usually a temperature above 101°F/38.5°C)
- very fast breathing (they might use the belly or neck muscles to help them breathe)
- trouble breathing
- chest or belly pain
- loss of appetite
- vomiting and dehydration
What Causes Pneumonia?
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. The illness comes on more gradually and might be less severe than pneumonia that's caused by bacteria. In bacterial pneumonia, a person tends to become sick quickly, have a high fever, and have trouble breathing. But the illness can be treated with antibiotics.
You might have heard the terms "double pneumonia" or "walking pneumonia." Double pneumonia just 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 (mycoplasma pneumonia) is common in teens and, like the typical bacterial pneumonia, also can be treated with antibiotics.
How Long Does It 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.
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.
Doctors will do an exam to look for pneumonia. They’ll check the person’s appearance, breathing pattern, and vital signs. They'll listen to the lungs and might order a chest X-ray.
How Is Pneumonia Treated?
People who have viral pneumonia do not need antibiotics. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, not viruses. Someone with viral pneumonia from the flu virus or COVID-19 might get an antiviral medicine if it’s early in the illness.
Doctors treat bacterial pneumonia with an antibiotic taken by mouth. Usually, this can be done at home. The antibiotic they use depends on the type of bacteria thought to have caused the pneumonia. The doctor also will recommend getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Some people might need treatment in a hospital if the pneumonia causes a lasting high fever or breathing problems, or if they need oxygen, are vomiting and can’t take the medicine, or have a lung infection that may have spread to the bloodstream.
Hospital treatment might include IV (given into a vein) antibiotics and respiratory therapy (breathing treatments). Someone with a severe case might need care in the intensive care unit (ICU).
What Can Help Me Feel Better?
If your doctor has prescribed medicine, follow the directions carefully.
Make sure you drink plenty of fluids, especially if you have a fever. If the fever makes you uncomfortable, ask the doctor if you can take over-the-counter (OTC) medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring it down. Do not use aspirin as it's linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome, which can lead to liver failure and death. Check with your doctor before you take any medicine — a cough suppressant, for example, may not let your lungs clear themselves of mucus.
And get lots of 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.
Can I Prevent Pneumonia?
The routine vaccinations that most people get as kids help prevent some types of pneumonia and other infections. If you have a chronic illness, such as sickle cell disease, you may have gotten extra vaccines 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.
The flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine are recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older. These vaccines are extra important for people who have a chronic illness, such as a heart or lung disorder or asthma.
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 another respiratory infection. 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 avoid some of the illnesses that might lead to pneumonia by eating healthy foods, getting at least 8–10 hours of sleep a night, and not smoking.