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What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. Normally, the small sacs in the lungs are filled with air. In someone who has pneumonia (nu-MOH-nyuh), the air sacs fill up with pus and other fluid.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Pneumonia?

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • chills
  • fast breathing 
  • breathing with grunting or wheezing sounds
  • working hard to breathe
  • vomiting
  • chest pain
  • belly pain 
  • being less active 
  • loss of appetite (in older kids) or poor feeding (in babies)

What Causes Pneumonia?

Viruses, like the flu or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), cause most cases of pneumonia. Kids with pneumonia caused by a virus usually have symptoms that happen over time and tend to be mild.

Less often, bacteria can cause pneumonia. When that happens, kids usually will become sick more quickly, starting with a sudden high fever, cough, and sometimes fast breathing. Types of bacterial pneumonia include pneumococcal pneumonia, mycoplasma pneumonia (walking pneumonia), and pertussis (whooping cough).

How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

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.

Some children 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 can include IV (given into a vein) antibiotics and fluids and breathing treatments. More serious cases might be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU).

How Can Parents Help?

Kids with pneumonia need to get plenty of rest and drink lots of liquids while the body works to fight the infection. Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) can help to ease a fever if it makes your child uncomfortable. Do not give aspirin to your child or teen as it's linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome, which can lead to liver failure and death.

If the doctor thinks that your child might have bacterial pneumonia, they will prescribe antibiotics. Give the medicine on schedule for as long as directed. Doing so will help your child recover faster and help prevent the infection from spreading to others. If your child is wheezing, the doctor might recommend using breathing treatments.

Ask the doctor before you use a medicine to treat your child's cough. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not recommended for any kids under 6 years old. If your child doesn’t seem to be feeling better in a few days, call your doctor for advice.

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 respiratory viruses and bacteria that lead to it are. When these germs are in someone’s mouth or nose, that person can spread the illness through coughs and sneezes.

These germs also can spread if someone shares drinking glasses and eating utensils with an infected person or touches their used tissues or handkerchiefs. 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 well and often, especially if you're handling used tissues or dirty handkerchiefs.

Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

Some types of pneumonia can be prevented by vaccines. Kids usually get routine vaccines against Haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcus, and whooping cough beginning at 2 months of age.

The flu vaccine and an updated COVID-19 vaccine are recommended for all adults and kids ages 6 months and up. These vaccines are extra important for kids who have a chronic illness, such as a heart or lung disorder or asthma. 

An RSV vaccine is now recommended for all pregnant women in their third trimester whose babies will be born just before or during RSV season (usually fall to spring in the U.S.). This vaccine can protect the newborn from severe RSV illness. If the mother did not get this vaccine, or if the baby was born less than 2 weeks after she did, doctors can give the baby a special antibody shot to prevent severe RSV illness. This shot is recommended at the start of RSV season for babies younger than 8 months old and some children 8–19 months old who are at higher risk for getting very sick from an RSV infection.

When possible, keep kids away from anyone with symptoms (stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, cough) of a respiratory infection. During the pandemic, masks were shown to be very helpful in preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia.

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