Walking pneumonia is an infection that affects your upper and lower respiratory tract. It’s also called atypical pneumonia because it’s often caused by bacteria that, while common, are difficult to detect.

Walking pneumonia is typically milder than traditional pneumonia, which is responsible for roughly 1.5 million emergency department visits annually. 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 walking pneumonia symptoms usually go away within 3 to 5 days, but a cough can linger for weeks or months.

Is it contagious?

Walking pneumonia is a highly contagious disease. It can be passed to another person for up to 10 days.

The disease can be transmitted when a person inhales or ingests airborne droplets released when someone with walking pneumonia sneezes, coughs, or talks.

Avoiding close contact with others while recovering from walking pneumonia can help prevent the spread of pathogens. Other steps you can take include:

  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing
  • washing hands frequently
  • promptly tossing tissues in a waste container with a lid

Types of walking pneumonia

Walking pneumonia is one of more than 30 different types of pneumonia. It can be divided into a few different subtypes, including:

Mycoplasma pneumonia

This type of pneumonia tends to be mild, and most people recover without treatment. It’s caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae (M. pneumoniae). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are about 2 million cases of M. pneumoniae infections each year in the United States.

Chlamydial pneumonia

This type of walking pneumonia is caused by Chlamydia pneumoniae bacteria. While it can cause a serious infection, most people experience only mild illness or no symptoms whatsoever. It’s common among school-age children and young adults.

Legionella pneumonia (Legionnaires’ disease)

Legionnaire’s disease is one of the most serious types of walking pneumonia, as it can lead to both respiratory failure and death. It’s caused by Legionella, a type of bacteria found in freshwater that can contaminate water systems in buildings. People can get this disease if they inhale airborne droplets of water that contain the bacteria.

Walking pneumonia symptoms are typically mild and look like the common cold. People may start noticing signs of walking pneumonia between 1 and 4 weeks of being exposed to the pathogen that caused the disease.

Symptoms of walking pneumonia can include:

Symptoms can also vary based on where the infection is. For example, an infection in the upper respiratory tract may be more likely to cause a sore throat, cough, and/or runny nose. A lower respiratory infection may cause symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Symptoms in children

Children, infants, and toddlers may show the same symptoms as adults. They may also develop infections in their ears, sinuses, and/or upper airway (croup). In general, children with walking pneumonia tend to feel very tired and run down.

Walking pneumonia vs. bronchitis symptoms

Both bronchitis and walking pneumonia have similar symptoms, but the two diseases are not the same. Bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes, not the small airways of the lungs.

Bronchitis symptoms may include:

  • low-grade fever
  • chest congestion
  • wheezing, or a slight whistling sound when inhaling
  • a cough with yellow or green mucus
  • fatigue and weakness
  • runny, stuffy nose
  • shortness of breath

The main difference is that the recovery time tends to be shorter with acute bronchitis than with pneumonia. But recovering from chronic bronchitis may take a long time.

Walking pneumonia can be caused by viruses or bacteria. According to the American Lung Association, most cases are caused by M. pneumoniae, a common type of bacteria that usually affects children and adults under the age of 40. M. pneumoniae infections tend to peak in summer and early fall but can happen throughout the year.

Chlamydophila pneumoniae can also cause walking pneumonia. Infections from this type of bacteria are common in all four seasons. It often spreads in crowded environments, like college dorms and long-term care facilities.

Adults and children can also contract walking pneumonia from viruses. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a frequent cause of walking pneumonia in young kids, while adults tend to get the viral form of the disease from the influenza virus.

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
  • immunocompromised
  • taking immunosuppressant drugs
  • living with a respiratory condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • someone who uses inhaled corticosteroids for long periods of time
  • someone who smokes
  • exposed to pollutants
  • living or working in crowded places

A healthcare professional can diagnose walking pneumonia through a physical exam and by asking about your symptoms and medical history. They may order a chest X-ray to distinguish between pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, like acute bronchitis.

In some cases, a person suspected of having walking pneumonia may also need laboratory tests, like:

Since walking pneumonia tends to be mild, some people with the illness choose not to get a formal diagnosis. But other serious diseases can cause symptoms that look like walking pneumonia. If symptoms continue to worsen after a few days, consider checking in with a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment for walking pneumonia depends on what’s causing the disease. Walking pneumonia from bacteria can be treated with antibiotics. A healthcare professional may use antiviral medications to treat cases caused by viruses.

For very mild cases of walking pneumonia, treatment may simply involve managing symptoms at home and resting.

Over-the-counter medication and home remedies

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

  • Reduce your fever by taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.
  • Avoid cough suppressant medication (unless recommended by a doctor), as it may make it harder to make your cough productive.
  • Drink lots of water, warm beverages, and other fluids.
  • Use a humidifier or take baths to make it easier to breathe.
  • Get as much rest as possible.

Medical treatment

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

Antiviral medications are sometimes used to treat viral pneumonia, depending on the severity of your symptoms and the virus causing the disease.

Hospitalization

Most people with walking pneumonia can recover at home. But high-risk individuals and those with a severe case of pneumonia may require hospitalization.

During a stay at the hospital, you may receive antibiotic therapy, intravenous fluid, and respiratory therapy if you have trouble breathing. Most people feel well enough to leave the hospital after 3 days or so.

Getting your annual flu shot may help prevent pneumonia from the influenza virus. Unfortunately, there are no vaccinations that prevent walking pneumonia from M. pneumoniae or Chlamydia pneumoniae.

You may be able to reduce the risk of walking pneumonia by:

  • washing your hands frequently, especially before touching your face and handling food
  • using hand sanitizer, if soap and water aren’t available
  • avoiding smoking
  • covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • getting adequate sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a well-balanced diet
  • avoiding close contact with people who have pneumonia or other contagious illnesses

Can you get walking pneumonia more than once?

Yes, it’s possible to get walking pneumonia again, even if you’ve recovered from a previous case. It’s also possible to contract bacterial pneumonia while you have viral pneumonia. That’s why taking steps to prevent the spread of pathogens is key, especially for high-risk individuals.

Walking pneumonia is typically mild and rarely requires hospitalization. The symptoms can feel like a bad cold, but they often go away on their own in less than a week. Getting plenty of rest and managing symptoms at home can help you stay comfortable during your recovery.

In some cases, a healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics, antiviral medications, or other drugs to treat walking pneumonia. If symptoms continue to worsen after a few days, you may need more intense care, like hospitalization.