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What to Know About Pneumonia in Children

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 14, 2021

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes mild to severe symptoms in people from all age groups, including children. Children and older individuals have a higher risk of developing pneumonia. The best way to prevent children from getting pneumonia is through good hygiene practices like regular handwashing and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Children usually recover from pneumonia when they receive proper medical attention.

Causes of Pneumonia in Children

Children are vulnerable to developing pneumonia from viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Pneumonia often develops as a complication of another disease like the flu or a viral upper respiratory infection. Our nose and throat passageways allow microorganisms to get into our airways and infect the air sacs of our lungs. 

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus often found in children with pneumonia who are 5 years old or younger. Children younger than 1 year old have an increased risk of pneumonia if they are exposed to secondhand smoke. The following conditions can make children more likely to get pneumonia from microorganisms:  

  • Compromised immune system
  • Chronic health issues like cystic fibrosis or asthma
  • Lung or airway problems  

Signs of Pneumonia in Children

Pneumonia typically spreads from person to person. Because children spend more time indoors in cooler or cold weather, they may be more exposed to the illness during fall, winter, and early spring. The clothes your child wears or the temperature outside do not stop them from getting pneumonia.

The symptoms of pneumonia can vary from child to child. Your child’s symptoms and their severity can depend on whether bacteria or a virus caused the illness. Children infected by bacteria typically present symptoms like: 

  • Fever
  • Cough with mucus
  • Painful cough
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Unusual tiredness

It’s often hard to tell whether bacteria or a virus causes your child’s pneumonia. If the cause is a virus, then breathing problems may come on more slowly. Your child may start wheezing and develop a worsening cough. Symptoms that often show up with viral pneumonia include:

  • Rapid or harsh breathing
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • General fussiness

Some parents mistake the initial signs of pneumonia as a cold or other illness. If your child’s symptoms get worse, take them in for medical treatment. 

Treating Pneumonia in Children

The effectiveness of pneumonia treatment depends on whether the cause was a virus or bacteria. Doctors typically rely on a physical exam and tests, including chest x-rays and blood tests, to diagnose pneumonia. They may request a sputum culture to confirm the presence of a lung infection and use a pulse oximeter to measure your child’s oxygen levels.

If a virus caused a child’s pneumonia, treatment options are more limited. Doctors may recommend rest and medication to keep the child’s fever down if one is present. It's recommended not to give cough suppressants with codeine or dextromethorphan to children with pneumonia. Coughing helps expel excess mucus and clears the lungs.

Antibiotics can be effective in cases where bacteria cause pneumonia. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat your child’s pneumonia, you should give them the recommended dosage as often as your doctor directs you to. Avoid the temptation to stop using them once your child shows improvement. There may still be bacteria lingering in your child’s lungs, and if you stop giving antibiotics to your child, it may allow for pneumonia to return. 

Preventing Pneumonia in Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating children with the PVC13 vaccine. It helps prevent pneumonia from developing in children 2 years old and younger. The “13” in the PVC13 vaccine means it defends children against 13 variations of the pneumococcal disease. You should discuss the vaccine option with your child’s healthcare provider. It’s also a good idea to verify that your child is up-to-date on all other recommended vaccines for their age group.

Children can start receiving doses of the PVC13 vaccine when they are two months old. After that, they should receive booster shots periodically until they turn 15 months old. It only takes one dose of PVC13 to immunize children between the ages of 2 and 5 who have not previously received the vaccine. The same goes for children aged 2 to 18 who have certain medical conditions and have never gotten a PVC13 vaccination.

The pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPV23) pneumonia vaccine is also recommended for children between the ages of 2 and 5 who have a higher risk of developing pneumonia, including those who have:  

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Fast Facts You Need to Know about Pneumococcal Disease.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Pneumonia.”

Merck Manual: “Overview of Pneumonia.”

Cedars-Sinai: “Pneumonia in Children.”

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