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Pneumonia is a fairly common childhood condition, affecting 150 to 156 million children under the age of 5 each year.
In the United States, pneumonia is not as life-threatening as it once was because of antibiotics and other modern treatments. In developing countries, however, pneumonia is still a big threat to children.
One of the most common types of pneumonia is walking pneumonia. It’s a very mild form of pneumonia that’s seen in both children and adults.
Walking pneumonia in children generally does not lead to hospitalization. Symptoms of walking pneumonia are usually less severe than symptoms of other types of pneumonia.
Symptoms of walking pneumonia are often similar to the symptoms of a common cold. Children tend to be more resilient than adults, and they may not act sick. A child with walking pneumonia will usually eat and sleep normally, and have normal bowel habits.
Some of the main symptoms of walking pneumonia include:
- cough lasting more than seven days
- low-grade fever (temperature of 101°F)
- chills or body aches
- decreased appetite in older children
- chest or rib pain
- feeling of general malaise or discomfort
- labored breathing in severe cases
- wheezing, which is more common in severe viral infections
All types of pneumonia are due to a lung infection.
Walking pneumonia is often caused by an infection with the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae. M. pneumoniae infection is less common in children under 4 years old.
Many cases of walking pneumonia are caused by respiratory viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, though tests for viruses are often not needed.
One study suggested that pneumonia caused by M. pneumoniae infection tends to occur in three- to four-year cycles.
If you smoke in your home or have caregivers that smoke around your child, your child may be more susceptible to developing pneumonia.
Certain living conditions, such as very crowded spaces or homes with significant air pollution, can also contribute to lung infection. This is why you may see more cases of pneumonia in the colder fall and winter months, when people spend more time indoors.
Children who have other health conditions or weakened immune systems are also at risk for pneumonia.
See your doctor right away if your child:
- lacks energy for an extended period
- has trouble breathing
- suffers any significant changes in behavior or appetite
Walking pneumonia is a lung infection. It can turn dangerous very quickly, especially with young children.
Walking pneumonia can usually be diagnosed with a physical exam. During the exam, your child’s doctor will listen to their lungs with a stethoscope.
With cases of pneumonia, areas of the lungs are infected and filled with fluid. The fluid causes the lungs to sound different from healthy lungs when your child breathes. Your doctor may hear crackling in the lungs.
They may also order a chest X-ray to help diagnose walking pneumonia.
In some cases, an infection due to walking pneumonia may not need any treatment other than rest. More commonly, however, doctors prescribe an oral antibiotic, usually amoxicillin.
Children may need up to 14 days of oral antibiotics for a bacterial case of walking pneumonia, and a day or two of rest at home. Walking pneumonia can take four to six weeks to clear up completely. It’s important to give your child plenty of downtime during recovery.
Sleep and lots of hydration with water are key. Here are some things you can do to help your child stay hydrated:
- Keep a water bottle near your child to encourage hydration throughout the day.
- Replenish electrolytes with drinks such as Pedialyte or Gatorade.
- Offer your child sugar-free popsicles.
If your child isn’t up-to-date on vaccinations, it’s also a good idea to make sure they’re fully vaccinated. Several of the vaccines given in childhood, including the pneumococcal, measles, and varicella vaccines protect against pneumonia caused by these organisms.
Vaccines also help prevent other infections occurring at the same time as pneumonia.
You should avoid offering any cough suppressants because they can keep mucus in the lungs, which can prolong the infection. Consider using a humidifier in your child’s room at night to help clear the lungs.
Pneumonia caused by viruses and mycoplasma is contagious. You should take extra precautions to reduce the risk of spreading it to other people:
- Practice proper hygiene and good handwashing.
- Encourage your child to cough into their elbow instead of their hands.
- Replace your child’s toothbrush and clean their linens.
Keep an eye out for any further symptoms, such as breathing difficulties.
One study found a possible association between asthma and walking pneumonia. If your child has asthma, pneumonia could make their symptoms worse. In some cases, researchers have found that a new diagnosis of asthma can also develop after pneumonia.
The outlook for walking pneumonia in children is generally good. The best treatment is plenty of rest. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, make sure your child finishes the entire course.
Because walking pneumonia can be caused by different organisms, your child can catch it again. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces around the house, like door handles and toilet flushers, to help prevent transmitting the illness.
When can my child return to school?
Children should stay home until they have no fever for 24 hours, are eating and drinking fairly well, and they feel up to going to school. It’s not known for sure how long mycoplasma and other viruses that cause pneumonia are contagious, but 7-10 days is commonly used. Since these viruses and bacteria are already common in the community, children don’t usually have to stay home for the full 10 days.Karen Gill, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.