The word pneumonia means “infection of the lung”. While pneumonia was extremely dangerous in past generations, today most children can recover from it easily if they receive proper medical attention. It is generally more common in babies or children younger than 5 years old.
Most cases of pneumonia follow a viral upper respiratory tract infection. It also can be caused by bacterial infections. If a viral infection has irritated the airway enough or weakened a child’s immune system, bacteria may begin to grow in the lung, adding a second infection to the original one.
Certain children whose immune defenses or lungs are weakened by other illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, or cancer may be more likely to develop pneumonia. Children whose airways or lungs are abnormal in other ways may have a higher risk. The chance that a child will develop pneumonia is not affected by how she is dressed or by air temperature on cold days. It is most often caused by bacteria or viruses. Some of these bacteria and viruses can be spread by direct contact with a person who is already infected with them.
Like many infections, pneumonia usually produces a fever, which in turn may cause sweating, chills, flushed skin, and general discomfort. The child also may lose her appetite and seem less energetic than normal. Babies and toddlers may seem pale and limp, and cry more than usual.
What causes pneumonia in a baby?
Common bacteria and viruses that may cause pneumonia are:
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Mycoplasma pneumonia. This often causes a mild form of the illness called walking pneumonia.
- Group B streptococcus
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This is most often seen in children younger than 5 years old.
- Parainfluenza virus
- Influenza virus
Pneumonia may sometimes be caused by fungi.
Which babies are at risk for pneumonia?
A baby is more likely to get pneumonia if he or she has:
- Weak immune system, such as from cancer
- Ongoing (chronic) health problem, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis
- Problems with the lungs or airways
In addition, children younger than 1 year old are at risk if they are around secondhand tobacco smoke. This is especially true if their mother or father smokes.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia in a child?
Symptoms may be a bit different for each child. They may also depend on what is causing the pneumonia. Cases of bacterial pneumonia tend to happen suddenly with these symptoms:
- Fast or hard breathing
- Cough that produces mucus
- Cough pain
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Tiredness (fatigue)
Early symptoms of viral pneumonia are the same as those of bacterial pneumonia. But with viral pneumonia, the breathing problems happen slowly. Your child may wheeze and the cough may get worse. Viral pneumonia may make a child more at risk for bacterial pneumonia. A child may lose her appetite and seem less energetic than normal. Babies and toddlers may seem pale and limp, and cry more than usual.
How is pneumonia diagnosed in babies?
Your child’s healthcare provider can often diagnose pneumonia with a full health history and physical exam. He or she may include these tests to confirm the diagnosis:
- Chest X-ray
- Blood tests
- Sputum culture
- Pulse oximetry
- Chest CT scan
- Pleural fluid culture
How is pneumonia treated in babies?
Treatment may include antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia. No good treatment is available for most viral pneumonias. They often get better on their own. Flu-related pneumonia may be treated with an antiviral medicine.
Other treatments can ease symptoms. They may include:
- Plenty of rest
- Getting more fluids
- Cool mist humidifier in your child’s room
- Acetaminophen for fever and discomfort
- Medicine for cough
Some children may be treated in the hospital if they are having severe breathing problems. While in the hospital, treatment may include:
- Antibiotics by IV (intravenous) or by mouth (oral) for bacterial infection
- IV fluids if your child is unable to drink well
- Oxygen therapy
- Frequent suctioning of your child’s nose and mouth to help get rid of thick mucus
- Breathing treatments, as ordered by your child’s healthcare provider
What are possible complications of pneumonia in a child?
Pneumonia can be a life-threating illness. It may have these complications:
- Severe breathing problems
- Bacteria that enters the blood
How can I help prevent pneumonia in my child?
Pneumococcal pneumonia can be prevented with a vaccine that protects against 13 types of pneumococcal pneumonia. Doctors recommend that children get a series of shots beginning at age 2 months. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about this vaccine. Another vaccine is available for children older than 2 years who are at increased risk for pneumonia. Talk with your child’s healthcare to see if it is recommended for your child. Also make sure your child is up-to-date on all vaccines, including the yearly flu shot. Pneumonia can occur after illnesses such as whooping cough and the flu.