Pneumonia: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Updated in March 2022

Pneumonia symptoms can appear gradually or happen quickly, specially when the immune system is weakened. Most cases of pneumonia happen due to a cold that does not go by or that gets worse over time, and is normally a consequence of a secondary infection by a virus, fungus or bacteria.

Symptoms may vary from one person to the other but normally include:

  1. Difficulty breathing;
  2. Rapid breathing;
  3. Fever over 100.4º F (38ºC);
  4. Dry cough;
  5. Cough with green phlegm or with blood;
  6. Chest pain;
  7. Night sweating;
  8. Fatigue and muscle aches;
  9. Constant headache.

Along with the above symptoms, infants with pneumonia may also get more restless, present with vomiting, experience loss of appetite or cry excessively. Elderly people may develop other symptoms like confusion and memory loss associated with their fever, difficulty breathing, and a cough.

X ray of a lung with pneumonia
X ray of a lung with pneumonia

Possible causes

Pneumonia normally happens due to:

  • Viral or bacterial infections in the nose or throat that spread to the lungs;
  • Aspiration of an object or food into the lungs, which can happen when a child places a bean or a small toy up the nose, and it gets sucked into the lungs;
  • Aspiration of vomit, causing inflammation in the pulmonary tissues;
  • Use of breathing equipment (for instance, CPAP) that is dirty, which increases the risk of a virus or bacteria getting into the lungs.

Pneumonia is more common in children under the age of five and older adults over 70 due to low immunity. However, anybody can get pneumonia, especially if they have some type of respiratory problem or an immune disease such as cancer or HIV.

How it is diagnosed

Pneumonia diagnosis is usually done by a pneumonologist or a G.P. through assessment of symptoms and a lung x-ray. In addition, other tests may be requested, such as conventional blood tests (hemogram), a sputum culture or throat swab.

Treatment options 

Mild cases of pneumonia can be treated at home with oral medication. Most cases of pneumonia occur due to a bacterial infection, and therefore appropriate treatment involves the use of antibiotics. Fungal pneumonia will be treated with antifungals. 

The doctor may recommend hospitalization for children under the age of one or for older adults over 70 with other chronic issues, like diabetes. In serious cases, where the person cannot breathe on their own, they may need to be admitted to the intensive care unit. 

Treatment may last for up to 21 days, and during this time it's recommended to follow some precautions such as: 

  • Drinking a lot of water; 
  • Covering your mouth to cough and washing your hands regularly;
  • Resting and avoiding strenuous activities;
  • Avoiding public, indoor locations; 
  • Performing regular nebulization with a saline solution or medication, when prescribed; 
  • Avoiding the use of cough medication without doctor supervision.

Doing these things will avoid transmission to other people and will keep infection under control, ensuring optimal recovery.