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Walking Pneumonia (Atypical Pneumonia): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is walking pneumonia?

Walking pneumonia is a bacterial infection that affects your upper and lower respiratory tract. It’s also called atypical pneumonia, because it’s usually not as severe as other types of pneumonia. It doesn’t cause symptoms that require bed rest or hospitalization. It might just feel like a common cold and can go unnoticed as pneumonia. Most people are able to carry on with their daily lives.

This type of pneumonia is considered atypical due to the fact that the cells causing the infection are resistant to penicillin, the drug that is normally used to treat pneumonia. About 2 million people in the United States get walking pneumonia due to Mycoplasma pneumoniae each year. Walking pneumonia can last anywhere from a week to a month.

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Symptoms

What are the symptoms of walking pneumonia?

The symptoms of walking pneumonia are typically mild and look like the common cold. Symptoms may be gradual at first (showing up about two weeks after exposure) and get worse over the course of a month. Symptoms include:

Symptoms that last longer than a week may be a sign of walking pneumonia.

Symptoms can also vary based on where the infection is. For example, an infection in the upper respiratory tract will cause more labored breathing, while an infection in the lower respiratory tract, including the lungs, may cause nausea, vomiting, or an upset stomach.

Other symptoms that may include:

Symptoms in children: Children, infants, and toddlers may show the same symptoms as adults. But even if your child feels okay enough to go to school, he should stay at home until his symptoms improve.

Read more: Walking pneumonia in children »

Walking pneumonia vs. bronchitis symptoms

Walking pneumonia symptoms differ from those of bronchitis. Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes, not the small airways of the lungs. With bronchitis, you typically experience a productive cough. A productive cough is one that brings up mucus that is clear, white, green, or yellowish-grey in color. You may also experience a runny nose, fatigue, and sneezing. If you suspect you have bronchitis instead of walking pneumonia, click here to learn more about the condition.

Types and causes

What are the types of walking pneumonia?

Walking pneumonia is commonly brought home by children from school. Families who contract the infection will show symptoms two to three weeks later. There are three types of bacteria that cause walking pneumonia.

Mycoplasma pneumonia: It’s been estimated that 1 to 10 out of every 50 cases in the United States are caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae. It’s usually milder than other types of pneumonia and is the most common cause of pneumonia in school aged children.

Chlamydial pneumonia: Children who are in school are more likely to be infected with Chlamydia pneumoniae bacterium. It’s estimated that 300,000 people in the United States get infected each year with this bacterium.

Legionella pneumonia (Legionnaires' disease): This is one of the most serious types of walking pneumonia, as it can lead to both respiratory failure and death. It doesn’t spread through person-to-person contact, but through droplets from contaminated water systems. It mostly affects older adults, those with chronic illnesses, and weakened immune systems. About 5,000 cases are found each year in the United States.

Read more: What is Legionnaires’ disease? »

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Risk factors

What increases your risk factors for walking pneumonia?

Like pneumonia, the risk for developing walking pneumonia is higher if you are:

  • over age of 65 years old
  • 2 years old or younger
  • ill or have impaired immunity
  • a long-term user of immunosuppressant drugs
  • living with a respiratory condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • someone who uses inhaled corticosteroids for long periods of time
  • someone who smokes tobacco

Diagnosis

How will your doctor diagnose this condition?

You may not visit a doctor for your symptoms. However, one of the ways a doctor can confirm the diagnosis of pneumonia is if you get a chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can distinguish between pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, such as acute bronchitis. If you do visit your doctor for your symptoms, your doctor will also:

  • perform a physical exam
  • ask about your overall health and medical history
  • ask about your symptoms
  • conduct other tests to diagnose for pneumonia

Some laboratory tests use to diagnose pneumonia include:

  • a culture of mucus from your lungs, which is called sputum
  • a sputum gram stain study
  • a throat swab
  • a complete blood count (CBC)
  • tests for specific antigens or antibodies
  • blood culture
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Treatment

How do you treat walking pneumonia?

Home treatment

Pneumonia is often treated at home. Here are steps you can take to manage your recovery:

Walking pneumonia is contagious when infected. A person can typically only infect others during the 10-day period of when his or her symptoms are most severe.

Medical treatment

Antibiotics are generally prescribed based on the type of bacterium that’s causing your pneumonia. You can generally recover from atypical pneumonia on your own. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotic therapy only if you have bacterial pneumonia. Be sure to take all the medication for the full length, even if you feel better before you’ve taken it all.

Hospitalization

Some patients with atypical pneumonia (severe atypical pneumonia due to Legionella pneumophila) require hospitalization for antibiotic therapy and support. You may also need to stay at the hospital if you belong in one of the high-risk groups. During your stay at the hospital, you may receive antibiotic therapy, intravenous fluid, and respiratory therapy, if you have trouble breathing.

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Outlook

What's the recovery time for this condition?

This condition is rarely serious and may go away on its own in a few weeks. You can encourage recovery by getting enough rest and fluids at home. If you do end up visiting the doctor, you may receive an antibiotic, which will shorten the time it takes to recover. Be sure to take your antibiotic for the full prescribed period.

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Prevention

How do you prevent walking pneumonia?

There is no vaccination that prevents walking pneumonia or the bacteria that cause it. It’s also possible to become re-infected, so prevention is key. This is particularly important for children, who may contract the bacteria at school.

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