Coronavirus and Pneumonia

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 31, 2022
4 min read

Most people who get COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms like coughing, a fever, and shortness of breath. But some who catch COVID-19 get severe pneumonia in both lungs. COVID-19 pneumonia is a serious illness that can be deadly.

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation in the tiny air sacs inside your lungs. They may fill up with so much fluid and pus that it’s hard to breathe. You may have severe shortness of breath, a cough, a fever, chest pain, chills, or fatigue.

Your doctor might recommend cough medicine and pain relievers that reduce fever. In the most serious cases, you may need to go to the hospital for help breathing with a machine called a ventilator.

You can get pneumonia as a complication of viral infections such as COVID-19 or the flu, or even a common cold. But bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms can also cause it.

What is COVID-19-infected pneumonia?

The lung infection tied to COVID-19 was originally called novel coronavirus-infected pneumonia (NCIP). The World Health Organization renamed the virus COVID-19 for coronavirus disease 2019.

A fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath are common early signs of COVID-19. You may also have:

  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Belly pain
  • Muscle or body aches
  • A headache
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • A sore throat
  • Congestion or a runny nose
  • Pinkeye
  • Skin rashes

If your COVID-19 infection starts to cause pneumonia, you may notice things like:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath or breathlessness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Heavy sweating

About 15% of COVID-19 cases are severe. That means they may need to be treated with oxygen in a hospital. About 5% of people have critical infections and need a ventilator.

People who get pneumonia may also have a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). It’s a disease that comes on quickly and causes breathing problems.

COVID-19 can cause severe inflammation in your lungs. It damages the cells and tissue that line the air sacs in your lungs. These sacs are where the oxygen you breathe is processed and delivered to your blood. The damage causes tissue to break off and clog your lungs. The walls of the sacs can thicken, making it very hard for you to breathe.

Anyone can get COVID-19 pneumonia, but it’s more likely in people who are 65 or older. Those who are 85 or older are at the highest risk.

People who live in nursing homes or who have other health problems like these also have higher chances of more severe illness with COVID-19:

Someone who has a weakened immune system may be more likely to get severe COVID-19 illness, too. This includes smokers, people being treated for cancer, people who have had a bone marrow transplant, people who have HIV or AIDS that’s not under control, and anyone who takes medications that slow the immune system, like steroids.

Free COVID testing is available in most communities. Some locations require an appointment while others are drive-up. Check with your local health department about testing availability.

Your doctor can diagnose COVID-19 pneumonia based on your symptoms and imaging studies (x-rays)>

Blood tests may also show signs of COVID-19 pneumonia. These include low lymphocytes and elevated C-reactive protein (CRP). Your blood may also be low in oxygen. A chest CT scan may show patchy areas of damage in both your lungs. Doctors call this “ground glass.”

Pneumonia may need treatment in a hospital with oxygen, a ventilator to help you breathe, and intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration.

Clinical trials are looking into whether some drugs and treatments used for other conditions might treat severe COVID-19 or related pneumonia, including dexamethasone, a corticosteroid.

The FDA has approved the antiviral remdesivir (Veklury) for the treatment of patients hospitalized with COVID. The drug was originally developed to treat the Ebola virus.

If you’re in a high-risk group for COVID-19 pneumonia, take these steps to prevent infection:

  • Wash your hands often. Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer gel that’s at least 60% alcohol. Rub it all over your hands until they’re dry.
  • Try not to touch your face, mouth, or eyes until you’ve washed your hands.
  • Avoid anyone who’s sick. Stay home and avoid others as much as you can.
  • Wear a face mask if you have to go out. The CDC  states that well-fitting respirator masks (like N95s and KN95s) provide better protection than other masks.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces in your home that you touch often, such as countertops and keyboards.

While there are COVID vaccines now available, they do not protect you from pneumonia. The pneumonia vaccine protects against a kind of bacteria, not the coronavirus. Still, it can support your overall health, especially if you’re older or have a weak immune system. Talk to your doctor about whether you should get either vaccine.