Pneumonia: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

The main symptoms of pneumonia are high-grade fever, fatigue, dry or wet cough or, confusion, chest pain and shortness of breath. However, in some cases, pneumonia symptoms can be so mild that they end up being confused with other conditions, such as allergies, the flu or a cold.

Pneumonia symptoms vary depending on whether this condition was caused by a virus, fungus or bacteria. Symptoms can also depend on the person's age and health status. For this reason, it is important to consult a general practitioner, lung specialist or pediatrician for assessment and the best treatment approach.

Treatment for pneumonia varies depending on the severity of symptoms and the cause of the infection. It generally involves the use of medications such as antibiotics or antivirals and, in more severe cases, the use of oxygen and respiratory physiotherapy.

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Common symptoms

The main symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath;
  • Breathing faster than normal;
  • Fever above 38ºC (or 100.4ºF);
  • Dry cough;
  • Cough with green or bloody phlegm;
  • Chest pain;
  • Night sweats;
  • Frequent fatigue or muscle pain;
  • Constant headache.

If you suspect you may have pneumonia, it is important to consult a general practitioner, pediatrician or pulmonologist for an evaluation and to initiate the most appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of pneumonia in babies and children

The main symptoms of pneumonia in babies and children include cough, fever, wheezing, vomiting, difficulty feeding, tiredness, weakness and rapid breathing. However, pneumonia in babies and children does not always present with many symptoms.

Additionally, symptoms often vary depending on age, the cause of the pneumonia, and the severity of the illness. 

Symptoms of pneumonia in adults and older adults

The main symptoms of pneumonia in adults are:

  • Fever;
  • Chills;
  • Dry cough or cough with green, yellow or bloody phlegm;
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing;
  • Rapid breathing;
  • Chest pain;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Headache;
  • Tiredness;
  • Weight loss.

However, older people tend to have milder symptoms and typically do not have a fever. Furthermore, older people may experience sudden changes in behavior, such as agitation or mental confusion, which could be a sign of an infection such as pneumonia.

Risk factors

People who are most at risk of getting pneumonia are:

  • People over 65 and children under 2 years old;
  • People undergoing chemotherapy treatment;
  • People with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, and who are taking immunosuppressants
  • People with neurological conditions that make swallowing difficult, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and stroke;
  • People with HIV/AIDS;
  • People who smoke and consume alcohol regularly;
  • People with diseases that affect the lungs or heart (like asthma), uncontrolled diabetes, cystic fibrosis and emphysema.

Furthermore, people who are hospitalized, who are bedridden or who require breathing equipment are also at a greater risk of acquiring pneumonia, because these situations favor the accumulation of mucus and microorganisms in the lungs.

Confirming a diagnosis

The diagnosis of pneumonia is usually confirmed by a general practitioner, pediatrician or lung specialist. The doctor will assess the presenting symptoms and order tests such as a chest x-ray or a viral throat swab.

Although less used, a CT scan or chest ultrasound may also be indicated in some cases and, depending on the severity, blood tests such as a complete blood count, blood culture, urea and creatinine levels may also be ordered.

Treatment options

Pneumonia treatment generally lasts between 7 and 21 days, and varies depending on the underlying cause and severity of the disease. The doctor may opt to prescribe medications, such as antibiotics and antipyretics, as well as oxygen therapy and chest physiotherapy to help thin secretions and strengthen the lungs. 

Also recommended: Pneumonia Treatment: Home & Hospital Treatment

Generally, patients should aim to drink plenty of water and rest, and try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Learn about home remedies for pneumonia that you can use to complement your medical treatment.