Klebsiella Pneumoniae: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 21, 2023
5 min read

Klebsiella pneumoniae are a common type of bacteria found in your intestines. They are normally harmless. But Klebsiella pneumoniae can be dangerous if they get into other parts of your body, especially if you’re already sick. They can turn into “superbugs” that are very hard to fight with antibiotics. The germs can give you pneumonia, infect your wound or blood, and cause other serious problems. 

Infections are rare in healthy people because their immune systems are strong enough to fend off the germs. But infections are more likely if you have health problems like:

  • Alcoholism
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver disease
  • Lung disease

Other things that can increase your risk are:

  • Taking certain antibiotics for a long time 
  • Being older
  • Being in the hospital
  • Having an IV or a catheter (a tube connected to your bladder to drain pee)
  • Having an open wound
  • Having surgery
  • Using a ventilator to help you breath
  • Taking corticosteroids

These germs don’t spread through the air. You need direct contact to get sick. One way would be to touch a cut on your skin with dirty hands.

Most Klebsiella pneumoniae transmission happens in hospitals, nursing homes, and other places with lots of sick people. Health care workers can spread the germs if they don't wash and sanitize their hands often. The germs can also spread when they get on medical devices like:

  • IV tubes that go into a vein to give medicines
  • Endotracheal tubes and ventilators, which help you breathe
  • Urinary catheters, which drain pee away when you're not able to use the bathroom

Klebsiella pneumoniae are a type of bacteria that can cause many different infections. You are much more likely to pick up these germs when you are in the hospital.

These germs are the most common cause of pneumonia you get while you’re in the hospital. This is also known as hospital-acquired pneumonia. You’re much less likely to get pneumonia caused by these bacteria outside of hospitals. Klebsiella pneumonia you pick up in the community makes up only 3% to 5% of cases.

Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria can cause infections in other parts of your body. These include:

  • Bloodstream infections (bacteremia or septicemia)
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Meningitis 
  • Pus-filled pockets, or abscesses, in your liver
  • Wound infections
  • Surgical infections
  • Skin infection (cellulitis)

Klebsiella pneumoniae in urine

If Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria get into your urinary tract, they can cause an infection. This is more likely if you’ve had a catheter put in during a hospital stay. 

UTIs caused by Klebsiella pneumonia can be life-threatening, especially in people who have serious illnesses. It’s important to let your doctor know if you have any symptoms of a UTI, especially if you’ve been hospitalized.

The symptoms of Klebsiella pneumoniae infection depend on what part of your body these germs have invaded.

Symptoms of Klebsiella pneumonia:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Reddish, jelly-like mucus

Symptoms of UTIs include:

  • Pain when you pee
  • A need to pee often
  • An urgent need to pee
  • Pain under your pubic bone
  • Blood in your pee

Symptoms of meningitis:

  • High fever that comes on suddenly
  • Bad headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Upset stomach and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness and difficulty waking up 
  • Loss of appetite, thirst, or both 

Symptoms of bloodstream infections:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fast heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in your abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fast breathing
  • Confusion
  • Delirium 
  • Skin rash or discolored skin 
  • Warm skin
  • Hypothermia, or a low body temperature 

Symptoms of liver abscesses:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pain in the upper right side of your abdomen

Symptoms of wound and surgical infections:

  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Swelling
  • Slow healing
  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Pus oozing from the wound

Symptoms of skin infection:

  • Pain; sometimes extreme pain is the only symptom
  • Swelling
  • Redness

Your doctor can do a number of tests to diagnose pneumonia or other infections caused by Klebsiella pneumoniae. Depending on what kind of infection you have, they may test your:

  • Blood
  • Sputum (a mix of saliva and mucus that you may cough up)
  • Pee

Your doctor may also use some kind of imaging, such as a chest X-ray to help diagnose Klebsiella pneumoniae infection.

Antibiotics are the main treatment for Klebsiella pneumoniae infections. Your doctor will send your blood, urine, sputum, or other body fluid to a lab to find out which antibiotic is the best one to treat your infection.

Your doctor will start treatment as soon as they learn which antibiotic you should take. Examples include either a cephalosporin (such as cefepime) or a fluoroquinolone (such as ciprofloxacin) by themselves, or one of these antibiotics combined with an aminoglycoside. 

You will probably take antibiotics for 2 weeks. Take them just as it says on the bottle. If you stop taking them too soon, the infection may come back.

If you have an antibiotic-resistant infection, your doctor will decide the best way to treat it. They’ll probably try a different type of antibiotic or a combination of them.

It can be hard to prevent infection when you’re in the hospital. But you can do things to avoid transmitting the bacteria.

Always wash your hands before you:

  • Eat
  • Touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Change bandages on a cut

Always wash your hands after you:

  • Use the bathroom
  • Blow your nose, cough, or sneeze
  • Touch anything in doctor’s offices or hospitals

If you check into the hospital for treatment, take these extra steps to protect yourself:

  • Before you go, make sure to follow your treatment plan for any ongoing health conditions, like diabetes.
  • Ask the staff what they do to prevent infections.
  • Tell your nurse or doctor if your bandages get wet or IV tubes fall out of place.
  • If you need a catheter or other device, ask to have it taken out as soon as you don't need it anymore.
  • Ask anyone who comes into your room to wash their hands first.
  • Teach your family about fever and other signs of infection so they can call for help quickly.

Klebsiella infections are are very dangerous, and up to 50% of people with pneumonia caused by these germs die. Klebsiella bloodstream infections may kill 20% to 40% of those affected, and the death rate for people who are in an intensive care unit can be as high as 67%.

You are at higher risk for a poor outcome if you are older than 65 and if you have: