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
Causes and risk factors
All types of pneumonia are due to a lung infection. Walking pneumonia is usually caused by an infection with the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae. M. pneumoniae infection is less common in children under 4 years old. Some cases of walking pneumonia can also be caused by a respiratory virus, such as respiratory syncytial virus.
One study suggested that pneumonia caused by M. pneumoniae infection tends to occur in 3-4 year cycles. Another study found that in recent years the cycles have occurred less frequently in some geographical areas. Depending on where you live, you may notice more cases of walking pneumonia every 3-4 years.
If you smoke in your home or have caregivers that smoke around your child, your child may be more susceptible to catching 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 lowered immune systems are also at risk for pneumonia.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor right away if your child lacks energy for an extended period, has trouble breathing, or suffers any significant changes in behavior or appetite. Walking pneumonia is a lung infection, and 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 also hear crackling in the lungs. He or she 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. Most commonly, however, doctors prescribe an oral antibiotic called 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 4-6 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 are fully vaccinated. While there is no pneumonia vaccine for children, pneumonia may occur after other preventable illnesses that weaken the immune system. Vaccines also help prevent other infections occurring at the same time as pneumonia. You should also 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 washing.
- 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 is often caused by bacteria, your child can catch it again. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces around the house, like door handles and toilet flushers, to help prevent spreading the illness.