Viral Pneumonia

Written by Shannon Johnson | Published on June 26, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is Viral Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a common and very serious disease. According to the World Health Organization, it is the leading cause of death in children worldwide—it kills an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five every year (WHO, 2012). Children are not the only age group at risk: pneumonia (combined with the flu—often the cause of pneumonia) is the 8th leading cause of death in the U.S. every year (National Center for Health Statistics, 2009).

There are three main types of community-acquired pneumonia: bacterial, fungal, or viral. Community-acquired refers to the fact that these types of pneumonia are usually spread from person to person within a community.

In viral pneumonia, a virus invades the lungs causing them to swell and block the flow of oxygen.

In the past, it was thought that viruses only caused about 8 percent of community-acquired pneumonia. However, more recent studies have shown that viruses play a much larger role—potentially as high as 50 percent of cases (Mosenifar & Jeng, 2012). It is unclear whether this is due to better diagnostic tools that help uncover the real cause of pneumonia, or whether viral pneumonia is in fact more common now than in the past.

What is certainly clear is that viruses are the cause of the majority of cases of childhood pneumonia. According to the American College of Chest Physicians, viral pneumonia used to be a disease that was found only in young children and people over 65 years of age (Matsuoka & Eneloq, 2010). It is now common among all age groups.

Nevertheless, children and people over 65 are considered high-risk cases because their bodies are more susceptible to infection. In fact, viruses are the cause of the majority of cases of childhood pneumonia. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women, and people who have problems with their immune systems.

Most cases of viral pneumonia clear up within three weeks. However, viral pneumonia can range from mild to severe. Severe cases can lead to death.

What Causes Viral Pneumonia?

There are a number of viruses that can lead to viral pneumonia including:

  • adenoviruses
  • chickenpox
  • flu
  • respiratory syncytial virus

Researchers are not 100 percent clear on how these viruses cause pneumonia, and it is likely the exact mechanism differs depending on the specific virus. From a high level, the symptoms of pneumonia occur when your lungs become inflamed as they try to fight off the viral infection. This inflammation blocks the flow of oxygen, leading to a host of other problems.

Viruses are usually spread from person to person within a community. Coughing, sneezing, or touching a surface that has been contaminated by another infected person is the most common way to catch a virus that causes viral pneumonia.

Risks of Catching Viral Pneumonia

People that are at a higher-than-normal risk for viral pneumonia include those with lowered immune systems. Those include:

  • HIV/AIDS patients
  • babies born prematurely
  • children with problems in their lungs and hearts
  • certain medications, including chemotherapy and other drugs that weaken the immune system
  • organ transplant recipients on immunosuppressant drugs

If you have any of the following conditions, you are at a higher risk for viral pneumonia:

  • cancer or any other condition that is being treated with chemotherapy
  • heart disease/artery disease
  • diabetes
  • liver or kidney disease
  • HIV/HIV
  • chronic bronchitis or emphysema
  • recent upper respiratory tract infection, cold, or flu-like symptoms
  • recent viral infection
  • recent nausea and vomiting

Recognizing the Symptoms of Viral Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms are a lot like flu symptoms. Most cases of viral pneumonia are mild. However, you should be aware that it could quickly develop into a more serious condition. Some common symptoms of pneumonia are

  • cough
  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • constant fever of 102 F
  • sweating
  • shaking chills
  • blueness of the lips
  • weakness

The following symptoms and factors usually require a trip to the hospital:

  • older than 65 years old
  • confusion
  • rapid breathing
  • drop in blood pressure
  • breathing assistance via oxygen or other respiratory therapy
  • prior heart failure
  • preexisting lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

How Is Viral Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Doctors start with a physical exam. First, they listen to your lungs. If your lungs are making a crackling, bubbling, rumbling, or wheezing sound when you breathe, they will usually follow up with additional tests including:

  • chest X-ray
  • complete blood count blood test to check for signs of viral infection and distinguish between bacterial and viral infection
  • CT scan of the chest to check lung function
  • sputum culture, or test of the secretions of the lungs
  • bronchoscopy (rare), which allows the physician to look into your airways

How Do Doctors Treat Viral Pneumonia?

Treatment takes two forms: helping to ease the symptoms of the infection, and attempting to rid the body of the underlying infection.

To rid the body of infection, your doctor will need to prescribe an antiviral medications specifically keyed to defeat the virus that has infected your body. Note that antibiotics will not treat viral pneumonia because viruses, not bacteria, cause them. Commonly prescribed antivirals include:

  • amantadine
  • rimantadine
  • zanamivir
  • oseltamivir
  • ribavirin
  • acyclovir
  • ganciclovir
  • foscarnet
  • cidofovir

To address your symptoms, your doctor may recommend:

  • fever reducers like aspirin or ibuprofen
  • cough medicine
  • adequate amounts of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • oxygen therapy
  • breathing treatments, such as using a humidifier
  • pain medication to help deal with chest pain from frequent coughing

While most people can be treated at home, hospital stays may be needed for some where dehydration could be a concern. The elderly, those with chronic health concerns, and those who cannot take care of themselves may also need to stay in the hospital.

Staying Healthy and Preventing Pneumonia

There are some steps that you can take to prevent pneumonia:

  • practice good hygiene by washing your hands after using the bathroom, public transportation, or anywhere the risk of contamination is higher
  • don’t smoke—smoking damages the lung’s ability to fight off infection
  • get adequate amount of rest
  • exercise and eat healthy
  • practice courteous and safe sneezing and coughing—use the inner crook of your elbow when you sneeze or cough

In addition to these general guidelines, there are some recommendations for a few different age groups:

Adults

The flu virus can be a direct cause of viral pneumonia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get the seasonal flu vaccine. The exceptions are those adults who have had allergic reactions to eggs or any reaction to flu vaccines in the past, those who have had Guillan-Barre syndrome in the past, and those who are ill. If you are sick, you should reschedule for when you feel better (CDC, 2012).

High-Risk Adults

If you are in a high-risk group, you should consider getting the pneumococcal vaccine. This vaccine protects you against Streptococcus pneumonia, the most common bacterial cause of pneumonia. It has nothing to do with viral pneumonia, but is worth considering. High-risk adults include those who smoke and/or have asthma (CDC, 2012).

Children

All children 6 months or older should get the seasonal flu vaccine, unless they are allergic or have had Guillan-Barre syndrome (CDC, 2012).

High-Risk Children

Children that fall in the following high-risk categories should also get the pneumococcal vaccine:

  • are under 5 years old
  • have an immune system deficiency
  • have cancer
  • have cardiovascular disease
  • have sickle cell anemia

If you child attends daycare, you may also want to consider the vaccine. Viruses can spread quickly in a close-knit group such as daycare.

People Over 65

Anyone over the age of 65 should get the annual seasonal vaccine as well as the pneumococcal vaccine (CDC, 2012). Again, this does not apply to those with certain severe allergies, or those who have had Guillan-Barre Syndrome.

In addition, it is important to be especially vigilant if you are over 65. According to an article published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, people over 65 usually develop viral pneumonia after being exposed to influenza virus A H3N2 and respiratory syncytial virus (Falsey, 2012).

Wintertime is when most cases of viral pneumonia cases occur. If you are experiencing high-grade fevers, coughs, wheezing, low-grade fever, and patchy breathing—particularly during the winter months—you should see your physician immediately.

Recovering From Viral Pneumonia

Recovery time can vary according to the health of the person before they were diagnosed with viral pneumonia.

A young healthy adult will usually be back to normal activities with a week of getting over pneumonia.

People that are middle aged to older may take several weeks before they return to normal.

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