Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Some of these germs do spread from person to person, so you may be contagious if you have certain types of pneumonia. However, not everyone will develop pneumonia when exposed to the same germs.
There are many viruses that can cause pneumonia, and viruses can pass from person to person easily. For example, the influenza virus can survive on surfaces, making it even more contagious.
Bacterial pneumonia can spread from person to person as well.
Fungal pneumonia passes from the environment to a person, but it’s not contagious from person to person.
How is it spread?
Most pneumonia is caused by either bacterial or viral organisms. These can spread in a number of ways, including:
- coughs or sneezes that aren’t covered
- sharing cups or eating utensils
- touching a tissue or other item after someone with bacterial or viral pneumonia has used it
- not washing your hands regularly, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
Not everyone who is exposed to these bacteria or viruses will develop pneumonia. People who are at high risk of developing pneumonia include:
- children under 2
- adults over 65
- pregnant women
- anyone with a weakened immune system (such as people with HIV/AIDS, people with an autoimmune disease, or anyone undergoing chemotherapy)
- people with a chronic disease, like diabetes
- people who have been hospitalized
- people who smoke
- people with lung disease (such chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma) or heart disease
You should call the doctor if you think an illness may be pneumonia and you are in a high-risk category. You should also contact a medical professional if:
- you have chest pain
- you have an ongoing cough lasting more than a week
- your symptoms are getting worse
- you have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- you have a fever over 100.4˚F (38˚C) for more than 3 days
Which types of pneumonia can be contagious?
You may be contagious if you have a form of bacterial pneumonia, including:
- Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia
- Streptococcal pneumonia
- walking pneumonia
- chlamydial pneumonia
Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial pneumonia. You should be no longer contagious a day or two after starting antibiotics and once your fever resolves, if you had one.
You can also be contagious if you have viral pneumonia. The same viruses that cause colds and flu can cause viral pneumonia. Other viruses that attack the respiratory system can be causes as well.
Viral pneumonia is contagious until you are feeling better and have been free of fever for several days.
Noncontagious types of pneumonia
It’s possible to have pneumonia that can’t spread to other people. Fungal pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia are examples of pneumonias that aren’t usually contagious.
Fungal pneumonia typically occurs in people that have a weakened immune system or other serious health issues. The fungi that causes this type of pneumonia is usually found in soil. You’re not generally contagious if you have fungal pneumonia. That’s because it’s caused by inhaled fungi from your environment, not spread from person to person.
Aspiration pneumonia is not contagious because it is caused by inhaling food or liquid into your lungs. This can happen in people who have had a stroke or have other neurologic conditions.
How to prevent the spread of pneumonia
Here are some steps that can help reduce your exposure to bacteria or viruses that can cause pneumonia:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially if you are caring for someone who has pneumonia.
- Get vaccinated.
- Stop or don’t start smoking.
- Keep your body in good health with exercise and a healthy diet.
- If you have any ongoing health problems, take all medications as prescribed.
- Try to limit contact with people who are sick when possible.
- If you have pneumonia, stay home until you are well and your doctor says you are no longer contagious.
Vaccines are an important and effective way to prevent both viral and bacterial infections in children and adults. Pneumonia is a common complication with many of these infections.
Helpful vaccines for children:
- Haemophilus influenzae type b
- Prevnar (for Streptococcal pneumonia)
- DTaP or Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
- MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella)
Helpful vaccines for adults:
- Pneumovax (for Streptococcal pneumonia)
- varicella (chicken pox)
Talk to your doctor about which vaccines are right for you and your family.
Q&A: Can it be contagious to babies?
Can my baby catch our relative’s pneumonia?
Babies are especially at risk for viral and bacterial pneumonia. Infants are not old enough to have completed the series of vaccines that can protect them. Any person with a fever or cough due to illness should not be around an infant if possible. Pneumonia in babies is more serious given their smaller airways and immature immune system. They are also more likely to develop complications from these infections. Good hand washing is essential when around small children. Washing your hands before picking up, feeding, or playing with a baby is the best way to prevent the spread of illness.Judith Marcin, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.