What Is Bacterial Pneumonia?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 28, 2022
3 min read

Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of your lungs caused by certain bacteria. The most common one is Streptococcus (pneumococcus), but other bacteria can cause it too. If you’re young and basically healthy, these bacteria can live in your throat without causing any trouble. But if your body’s defenses (immune system) become weak for some reason, the bacteria can go down into your lungs. When this happens, the air sacs in your lungs get infected and inflamed. They fill up with fluid, and that causes pneumonia.

You have a higher risk of getting bacteria pneumonia if you:

  • Are 65 or older
  • Have other conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart disease
  • Are recovering from surgery
  • Don’t eat right or get enough vitamins and minerals
  • Have another condition that weakens your body’s defenses
  • Smoke
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Have viral pneumonia

People who have a weakened immune system also have an increased risk for bacterial pneumonia. These include those who recently had an organ transplant. People who are HIV positive, or who have leukemia, lymphoma, or severe kidney disease also stand a greater chance of developing the infection.

The symptoms can come on fast and furious, or they can creep up on you over a few days. Common symptoms are:

  • High fever up to 105 F
  • Coughing out greenish, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Chills that make you shake
  • Feeling like you can’t catch your breath, especially when you move around a lot
  • Feeling very tired
  • Low appetite
  • Sharp or stabby chest pain, especially when you cough or take a deep breath
  • Sweating a lot
  • Fast breathing and heartbeat
  • Lips and fingernails turning blue
  • Confusion, especially if you’re older

There are two kinds of shots for bacterial pneumonia:

PCV13 (Prevnar 13) is for:

  • People 65 or older
  • Kids under 5 years
  • People who have a high risk of bacterial pneumonia

PPSV23 (Pneumovax) is for:

  • People 65 or older
  • Children older than 2 who have a high risk of bacterial pneumonia
  • People between 19 and 64 who smoke or have asthma

Talk to your doctor to find out if you or your child should get a shot.

Besides getting shots, you can lower your risk of getting bacterial pneumonia by doing these things:

Your doctor might be able to tell if you have bacterial pneumonia just by examining you and asking questions about your symptoms and general health. They’ll probably listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. That will allow them to hear sounds that show there’s fluid in your lungs. But if they are not sure, you might have to get a chest X-ray.

Some people may need extra tests. These might include:

  • Pulse oximetry (a small gizmo clipped to your finger that checks for enough oxygen in your blood)
  • Blood tests
  • Tests of the gunk you cough up (“sputum”)
  • CT scan to look more closely at your lungs

Your doctor probably will prescribe antibiotics. It’s very important that you finish all of these. Otherwise the bacteria may not all be killed and you could get sick all over again. Your doctor might also suggest medication for pain and fever.

Other things you can do to help yourself get better:

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (they’ll loosen up the gunk in your lungs so you can cough it out).
  • Use a humidifier or take a warm bath (more gunk-loosening).
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Stay home until your fever goes down and you aren’t coughing anything out.

Most people who are treated for bacterial pneumonia start feeling better in a few days, but it can take a few weeks before you feel 100% better. Make sure you keep your follow-up appointments so your doctor can check your lungs.

If the pneumonia is stubborn or severe, you might have to go to the hospital. If you go to the hospital you might get:

  • Oxygen treatment
  • IV fluids and medications
  • Treatments to help loosen up the gunk