What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia refers to a serious type of lung infection. It’s often a complication of the common cold or flu that happens when the infection spreads to the lungs. Pneumonia during pregnancy is called maternal pneumonia.

Pneumonia is considered a serious and potentially fatal illness for anyone. Certain groups are at a higher risk of complications. This includes pregnant women.

The best way to treat and prevent complications from maternal pneumonia is to see your doctor at the first sign of an illness.

Symptoms of maternal pneumonia

Since pneumonia often starts off as the flu or cold, you might experience symptoms like a sore throat, body aches, and headache. Pneumonia entails much worse symptoms.

Symptoms of maternal pneumonia may include:

  • breathing difficulties
  • chills
  • chest pain
  • a cough that gets worse
  • excessive fatigue
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • rapid breathing
  • vomiting

Maternal pneumonia symptoms don’t generally differ between trimesters. But you may be more aware of symptoms later in your pregnancy. This may be due to other discomforts you might be experiencing.

Causes of pneumonia in pregnancy

Pregnancy puts you at risk for developing pneumonia. This is in part attributed to natural immune suppression during pregnancy. This happens because your body works harder to support your growing baby. Pregnant women may be more prone to the flu. You may also have reduced lung capacity. This makes you more susceptible to complications like pneumonia.

A flu virus or a bacterial infection that spreads to the lungs causes pneumonia. Bacterial infections are the most common cause of pneumonia. This is often referred to as “community-acquired pneumonia.” Bacterial culprits include:

  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

The following viral infections and complications can also lead to pneumonia:

You may be at an increased risk of contracting pneumonia during pregnancy if you:

  • are anemic
  • have asthma
  • have a chronic illness
  • work with young children
  • are frequently visiting hospitals or nursing homes
  • have a weakened immune system
  • smoke

When to call your doctor

You should call your doctor as soon as you start experiencing symptoms. The longer you wait, the higher the risk for complications.

The flu is often considered a precursor to pneumonia, especially during pregnancy. If you have pneumonia, you may need to go to the hospital to prevent the infection from getting worse.

You may need emergency medical care if you experience:

  • pain in your belly
  • chest pain
  • breathing difficulties
  • high fever
  • vomiting that lasts for 12 hours
  • dizziness or faintness
  • confusion
  • lack of movement from the baby (most noticeable in second and third trimesters)

How is pneumonia diagnosed during pregnancy?

A doctor can give you a diagnosis of maternal pneumonia. Your doctor may:

  • listen to your lungs
  • take an x-ray of your lungs (chest x-rays are generally deemed safe during pregnancy)
  • assess your symptoms and health history
  • take a sputum sample

How is pneumonia treated during pregnancy?

Common treatments for viral pneumonia are also deemed safe to use during pregnancy. Anti-viral medications can treat pneumonia in the early stages. Respiratory therapy may also be used.

If you have bacterial pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics cannot treat viral infections.

Your doctor may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers to reduce fever and pain. This can include acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Getting sleep and drinking fluids are also essential in your recovery. Don’t take any new medications or supplements without asking your doctor first.

Can pneumonia cause complications during pregnancy?

Severe or untreated cases of pneumonia can lead to a variety of complications. Oxygen levels in the body may plummet because the lungs can’t produce enough to send around the body. A condition called empyema can develop, which is when fluids accumulate around the lungs. Sometimes the infection can spread from out of the lungs to other parts of the body.

Pneumonia may also cause complications with babies. These include:

  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • miscarriage
  • respiratory failure

When left untreated, maternal pneumonia may be fatal.

What is the outlook for pneumonia during pregnancy?

You can prevent pneumonia complications by treating the illness early. Women who receive prompt treatment go on to have healthy pregnancies and babies.

There is an increased risk of death in pregnant women with pneumonia compared with those who aren’t pregnant. But several factors have reduced this risk in recent years, including:

  • prompt diagnoses
  • intensive care
  • antimicrobial therapy
  • vaccines


The best way to prevent pneumonia is to avoid getting the flu and other infections that can cause it. Good hygiene is essential to preventing illnesses, whether you’re pregnant or not. Pregnant women should be especially mindful of:

  • frequent handwashing
  • getting adequate sleep
  • eating a healthy diet
  • exercising regularly (this also helps build up the immune system)
  • avoiding others who are sick

Flu vaccines are also recommended for people at risk for contracting the disease. One of these risk factors is pregnancy. Older people and those with respiratory illnesses also fall into this category.

Talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of a vaccination — especially during flu season. While you can get the shot anytime, it’s recommended that you get it earlier in the flu season, around October.

The flu shot can help protect you against the flu during pregnancy. Its effects may also help protect your baby from the flu after birth. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the protection may last until your baby is six months old.

If you do fall ill with a cold or flu, watch your symptoms and call your doctor. You may need to go in for checkup as a precautionary step against pneumonia.