What to Know About Pneumonia in Children

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on September 04, 2023
3 min read

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 vaccination as well as good hygiene practices like regular handwashing and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Children usually recover from pneumonia when they receive proper medical attention.

Children are vulnerable to developing pneumonia from viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Pneumonia often develops as a complication of another disease like COVID-19, 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. Bacterial infections may also cause pneumonia.

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, asthma, sickle cell anemia or heart disease
  • Lung or airway problems  

Pneumonia typically spreads from person to person. Peak viral season is during fall, winter, and early spring because children spend more time indoors in cooler or cold weather and they may be more exposed to the illness. 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. 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 caused 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. 

The effectiveness of pneumonia treatment depends on whether the cause was a virus or bacteria. Doctors typically take your medical history and give a physical exam, conducting tests, including chest X-rays and blood tests, to diagnose pneumonia. They will 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. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating children with tPCV13 or 15, which help prevent pneumonia from developing in children 5 years and younger and in children ages 5-18 who have other medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to pneumonia.  The “13” and "15" mean they defend children against 13/15 variations of the pneumococcal disease. You should discuss vaccine options 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.

The CDC recommends the  PCV15 or 20 vaccine for adults ages 65 and older and for those 19 through 64 years old who have certain medical conditions or risk factors. 

 The pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPV23) pneumonia vaccine is also recommended for children ages 2-18 who have certain medical conditions, and adults 19 years and older who got the PCV15 vaccine.