What is viral pneumonia?
Viral pneumonia is a complication of the viruses that cause colds and the flu. It accounts for about one third of pneumonia cases. The virus invades your lungs and causes them to swell, blocking your flow of oxygen.
Many cases of viral pneumonia clear up on their own within a few weeks. However, severe cases can be life-threatening. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ranked pneumonia combined with the flu as the 8th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Symptoms of viral pneumonia in adults and children
The symptoms of pneumonia occur when your lungs become inflamed as they try to fight off a viral infection. This inflammation blocks the flow of oxygen and gas exchange in the lungs.
Early symptoms of pneumonia are a lot like flu symptoms. These include:
Viral and bacterial pneumonia have similar symptoms, but someone with viral pneumonia may develop additional symptoms. Some of these include:
Children with viral pneumonia may gradually show symptoms that are less severe. A bluish tint to their skin may be a sign of a lack of oxygen. They may also have a loss of appetite or eat poorly.
It’s possible for viral pneumonia to quickly develop into a more serious condition, especially if you’re in a high-risk group, such as people with weakened immune systems.
Who’s at risk for catching viral pneumonia?
Everyone has some risk of catching viral pneumonia, since it’s airborne and contagious. You may have a higher risk of developing pneumonia if you:
- work or live in a hospital or nursing care setting
- are 65 years of age or older
- are 2 years or younger
- are pregnant
Other factors include:
- having a chronic illness such as an autoimmune disease, heart disease, asthma, or a respiratory infection
- cancer or any other condition that’s being treated with chemotherapy
- recent viral infection
- smoking tobacco, which damages your body’s defenses against pneumonia
What causes viral pneumonia?
The virus travels through the air in a number of ways. Coughing, sneezing, or touching a contaminated surface are common ways for the virus to spread.
Several viruses can lead to viral pneumonia, including:
- adenoviruses, which can also cause the common cold and bronchitis
- chickenpox (Varicella zoster virus)
- flu (influenza viruses)
- respiratory syncytial virus, which causes cold-like symptoms
These viruses can be transmitted in communities, hospitals, and other healthcare settings.
When to see your doctor
Pneumonia can be a very serious condition for people in the high-risk group. See your doctor as soon as you show signs or symptoms of pneumonia. Go to the emergency room if you feel flu-like symptoms along with:
- rapid breathing
- a drop in blood pressure
- difficulty breathing
- a constant fever of 102.0˚F or above
- chest pain
How is viral pneumonia diagnosed?
Only a doctor can diagnose pneumonia. At the office, your doctor will ask you about your medical history and perform a physical exam. First, they’ll listen to your lungs for the following sounds when you breathe:
- decreased air flow
- crackling in the lungs
- wheezing when breathing
- rapid heart rate
Your doctor will usually follow up with additional tests if they’re concerned about the sounds that your lungs are making. These tests could include a(n):
- chest X-ray
- sputum culture to test secretions from your lungs
- nasal swab test to check for viruses such as the flu
- complete blood count (CBC) with differential to look for inflammatory change
- arterial blood gas
- computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest area
- blood culture
- bronchoscopy, which is rarely needed for diagnosing viral pneumonia, but allows your doctor to look directly inside your airways
The difference between viral pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia
Treatment is the biggest difference between bacterial and viral pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotic therapy, while viral pneumonia will usually get better on its own. In some cases, viral pneumonia can lead to a secondary bacterial pneumonia. At that point, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic therapy. Your doctor will be able to tell if it has become bacterial pneumonia by a change in your symptoms or signs.
What’s the treatment for viral pneumonia?
Most people can be treated at home for viral pneumonia. The goal of treatment is to ease the symptoms of infection.
Be sure to check with your doctor before taking a cough suppressant medicine, since coughing will help in your recovery. Children will usually follow the common treatment during their recovery, but it’s always best to check with a medical professional for treatment guidelines for your child.
Depending on the type of infection you have, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce viral activity. Your doctor may prescribe one if your condition is diagnosed early. It’s important to understand that antibiotics will not treat viral pneumonia, because a virus, not bacteria, causes it.
Older adults and people with chronic health conditions may need to stay in the hospital for extra care and to avoid dehydration. Older adults may also be given an antiviral medication, which may help them to recover more quickly.
How do I prevent viral pneumonia if it’s contagious?
Viral pneumonia is contagious and can be spread in much the same way as a cold or the flu. You can take steps to decrease your risk for contracting pneumonia.
The flu virus can be a direct cause of viral pneumonia. The CDC says that everyone 6 months or older should get the seasonal flu vaccine. The only exceptions are people who have had allergic reactions to flu vaccines or eggs, and people who have had Guillain-Barre syndrome.
If you’re sick at the time you’re supposed to get a flu shot, wait until you’re feeling better to get it.
How long does viral pneumonia last?
Your recovery time depends on how healthy you were before you were diagnosed with viral pneumonia. A young, healthy adult will usually recover faster than other age groups. Most people recover in a week or two. Adults or seniors may take several weeks before they fully recover.
The best way to prevent pneumonia is to practice good hygiene, get the seasonal flu shot every year, and try to avoid those around you who are sick with a cold or the flu.