What Are the Complications of Pneumonia?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on September 18, 2022
5 min read

When you get pneumonia -- whether it was caused by bacteria, a virus, or a fungus -- there's a chance it could lead to other medical troubles. Learn the signs of these complications and get treatment right away to keep any health problems you get under control.

If bacteria caused your pneumonia, they could get into your blood, especially if you didn't see a doctor for treatment. It's a problem called bacteremia.

Bacteremia can lead to a serious situation known as septic shock. It's a reaction to the infection in your blood, and it can cause your blood pressure to drop to a dangerous level.

When your blood pressure is too low, your heart may not be able to pump enough blood to your organs, and they can stop working. Get medical help right away if you notice symptoms like:

Your doctor will test your blood for bacteria and treat you with antibiotics if you have bacteremia. You may get treated in the hospital for bacteremia or septic shock.

Sometimes pneumonia can cause pockets of pus to build up in your lungs. It's more likely to happen if you:

Men and older people are more likely to get lung abscesses. Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

Your doctor can test your mucus or the pus in your lungs to look for infection. They may also take an X-ray or a CT scan of your lungs.

Your doctor will likely treat your lung abscesses with antibiotics. They may do a procedure that uses a needle to remove the pus.

There are two layers of tissue surrounding your lungs called the pleura. One wraps around the outside of your lungs and the other lines the part of your chest where your lungs sit. They help your lungs move smoothly when you breathe.

If your pneumonia isn't treated, the pleura can get swollen, creating a sharp pain when you breathe in. If you don't treat the swelling, the area between the pleura may fill with fluid, which is called a pleural effusion.

If the fluid gets infected, it leads to a problem called empyema. Tell your doctor if you are having any of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain that gets worse when you breathe, cough, or sneeze
  • Pain that travels to your back or shoulder
  • Fever
  • Hard time breathing
  • You don't want to breathe deeply because it hurts

Your doctor may look for swelling or fluid with an X-ray, ultrasound, or CT scan. They might also give you an electrocardiogram (EKG) to make sure that a heart problem isn't the cause of your chest pain.

If you do have pleurisy, you may need medications that can stop the swelling.

For pleural effusions and empyema, your doctor may suggest a procedure that removes fluid from your body with a needle. Antibiotics are also an option to treat empyema.

When you have pneumonia, it's possible for your lungs to fill with fluid. If that happens, they won't be able to transfer enough oxygen to your blood or get rid of the carbon dioxide in your blood. It's a serious condition because your organs need oxygen to work.

If your pneumonia is severe or you're in the hospital to treat it, your care team will watch you for signs of this rare -- but life-threatening -- complication.

You're more likely to get respiratory failure if you're being treated in the hospital, have a weak immune system, have a history of alcoholism, or you're elderly.

Get medical help right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fast breathing or not being able to breathe fully
  • Feel like you cannot get enough air
  • Racing or irregular heart rate
  • Confusion
  • A bluish tint to your skin, fingertips, or lips
  • Extreme restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Losing consciousness

To figure out if you're in respiratory failure, your doctor may use tools like X-rays, CT scans, blood tests, and pulse oximeters. The best way to treat it is to get more oxygen, either through a tube in your nose or a mask that your doctor places over your mouth and nose. You may also get medications to treat any infection that is causing the problem.

If you have bacteremia or septic shock, your heart may not be able to pump enough blood to your kidneys. It's not a common complication of pneumonia, but it's serious because your kidneys will stop working if they're not getting enough blood.

Your odds of getting kidney failure are higher if you're in the hospital or have other medical conditions on top of your pneumonia.

Your doctor will watch for signs of kidney problems. Get medical help right away if you have these symptoms:

Your doctor can see if your kidneys are working by looking at how much you are peeing and testing your urine or blood. Your doctor will treat the cause of your kidney failure, and in extreme cases you may need to have your blood cleaned through a dialysis machine until your kidneys are working again.

Research shows that 20% of people who are in the hospital for pneumonia also have heart problems, and scientists are looking into why that is. Some possible reasons include bacteria that enters the heart, the stress of the illness increasing the chance of having a heart problem, or that your body is not sending enough oxygen to your organs. The chances of having a heart problem related to your pneumonia are higher if you are elderly, are in the hospital, or already have a heart condition.

Get medical help right away if you are having.

Your doctor can look for heart failure by listening to your heart, testing your blood, or checking the results of an X-ray, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, CT scan, or MRI. Many medications and procedures can help you manage heart failure.