Key Points about Pneumonia

  • Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that causes inflammation in the lungs’ air sacs, or alveoli.
  • Common symptoms of pneumonia include a painful cough that may expel phlegm, pain in the chest while breathing, fever, body aches or chills, and shortness of breath.
  • Pneumonia is most common in adults over age 65, and in children under age two, although anyone can be affected.
  • Complications from pneumonia are most common in people with weakened immune systems.
  • Antibiotics are prescribed to treat bacterial pneumonia.
  • If your pneumonia is not bacterial, your doctor will likely recommend managing symptoms at home with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers until the infection clears.
  • Call your doctor if you have any symptoms of pneumonia, or if you are at a high risk of developing complications.

Overview

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that causes inflammation in the lungs’ air sacs, or alveoli. This inflammation can lead to symptoms such as a fever and a painful cough. Pneumonia can be caused by a bacteria, virus or fungus, and can be acquired after a respiratory infection, from a hospital stay, or incidentally.

Pneumonia is most common in adults over age 65, and in children under age two. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop complications from pneumonia.

Treating pneumonia usually requires managing symptoms at home until the infection clears. If you have bacterial pneumonia, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Some cases of pneumonia that are severe or occur in people who are immunocompromised may require being hospitalized. Call your doctor if you have any symptoms of pneumonia, if you have shortness of breath, or if you are at a high risk of developing complications.

Pneumonia causes

Pneumonia occurs when an infection takes hold in your lungs. These infections can be caused by:

  • Bacteria, which you can acquire after a cold or flu, from a hospital, or just incidentally. Most cases of bacterial pneumonia are caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria.                 
  • Viruses, which are often responsible for pneumonia in young children. Viruses can infect the lungs and cause pneumonia after a cold or flu.
  • Fungi, which can cause pneumonia in rare cases, particularly in people whose immune systems are weakened.

Pneumonia risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk of developing pneumonia:

  • Being over age 65
  • Being under age 2
  • Being currently, or having recently been, hospitalized
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having certain chronic diseases

Pneumonia symptoms

Symptoms of pneumonia vary, but can include:

  • A painful cough
  • A cough that expels phlegm
  • Pain in the chest while breathing
  • A fever and body chills
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

Adults over age 65 may also experience:

  • Feelings of confusion
  • Decreased awareness
  • Decreased body temperature

Infants and young children with pneumonia may experience:

  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Trouble breathing or eating
  • Fatigue or restlessness

Pneumonia complications

Complications from pneumonia can be serious and are more likely to develop in people with weakened immune systems. Complications may include:

  • Trouble breathing, which may require hospitalization and a ventilator
  • The accumulation of fluid around the lungs, which can also become infected
  • A lung abscess
  • Bacteria entering the bloodstream

Pneumonia prevention

The following measures can help prevent pneumonia:

  • Staying up to date on vaccinations, particularly those against the flu and pneumonia
  • Avoid smoking tobacco
  • Wash your hands often to avoid respiratory infections

Pneumonia diagnosis

When diagnosing pneumonia, your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical examination. Your doctor may also:

  • Use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal sounds in your lungs while breathing
  • Give a chest X-ray to identify the presence of pneumonia
  • Provide a blood test to search for the infection’s cause
  • Provide a sputum test, which analyzes a sample of lung fluid from a cough to identify the organism responsible for the infection
  • Measure oxygen levels in the blood through pulse oximetry

Pneumonia treatment

Pneumonia is treated by addressing the underlying infection, and by preventing further complications. If your pneumonia is caused by bacteria, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Your doctor may also recommend taking:

  • Cough medicine
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen

When to seek care

Call your doctor if you:

  • Are having trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Have a persistent cough, or expel pus when you cough
  • Have a persistent fever over 102 F
  • Have chest pain
  • Have intense chills that cause you to shake

Next Steps

If your pneumonia symptoms are severe, such as if you are having trouble breathing, you may need to be hospitalized.