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Pneumonia - Treatment Overview

Bacterial pneumonia

Doctors use antibiotics to treat pneumonia caused by bacteria, the most common cause of the condition. Antibiotics have a high cure rate for pneumonia.5

Your doctor will choose your antibiotic based on a number of things, including your age, your symptoms and how severe they are, and whether you need to go to the hospital. The number of days you take antibiotics depends on your general health, how serious your pneumonia is, and the type of antibiotic you are taking.

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Most people see some improvement in symptoms in 2 to 3 days. Unless you get worse during this time, your doctor usually will not change your treatment for at least 3 days.

Getting started on antibiotics soon after getting pneumonia may help recovery.5

If there is no improvement or if your symptoms get worse, you may need a culture and a sensitivity test. These tests help identify the organism that is causing your symptoms. These tests also help your doctor find out whether the bacteria is resistant to the antibiotic.

If you do not need to go to the hospital for pneumonia, it is not usually necessary to identify the organism causing the pneumonia before starting treatment. If you do go to the hospital, you will probably have some testing to identify the bacteria.

You likely will not have to go to the hospital unless you:

  • Are older than 65.
  • Have other health problems, such as COPD, heart failure, asthma, diabetes, long-term (chronic) kidney failure, or chronic liver disease.
  • Cannot care for yourself or would not be able to tell anyone if your symptoms got worse.
  • Have severe illness that reduces the amount of oxygen getting to your tissues.
  • Have chest pain caused by inflammation of the lining of the lung (pleurisy) so you are not able to cough up mucus effectively and clear your lungs.
  • Are being treated outside a hospital and are not getting better (such as your shortness of breath not improving).
  • Are not able to eat or keep food down, so you need to take fluids through a vein (intravenous).

Viral pneumonia

Pneumonia also can be caused by viruses, such as those that cause the flu and chickenpox (varicella). Antibiotics do not work to treat pneumonia caused by a virus.

  • People who are more likely to get pneumonia after having the flu (for example, pregnant women) may get an antiviral medicine such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) to help relieve symptoms.
  • Varicella pneumonia, which is rare, also can be treated with antiviral medicine.

What to think about

In most cases pneumonia is a short-term, treatable illness. But frequent bouts of pneumonia can be a serious complication of a long-term (chronic) illness, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you have a severe long-term illness, it may be hard to treat your pneumonia, or you may choose not to treat it. You and your doctor should discuss this. This discussion may include information about how to create an advance directive.

For more information, see:

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 06, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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