What Is Viral Pneumonia?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 19, 2023
4 min read

Viral pneumonia is an infection of your lungs caused by a virus. The most common cause is the flu, but you can also get viral pneumonia from the common cold and other viruses. These nasty germs usually stick to the upper part of your respiratory system. But the trouble starts when they get down into your lungs. Then the air sacs in your lungs get infected and inflamed, and they fill up with fluid.

Anything that weakens your body’s defenses (immune system) can raise your chances of getting pneumonia.

You have a higher chance of getting viral pneumonia if you:

  • Are 65 or older
  • Have chronic (ongoing) 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
  • Are HIV positive
  • Recently had an organ transplant
  • Have leukemia, lymphoma, or severe kidney disease

Babies and children 2 years old or younger also have a higher risk.

Viruses that can lead to pneumonia include:

  • Influenza (flu) A and B viruses, the most common causes in adults
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is more common in infants and children than in adults
  • Coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19
  • Rhinoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and adenoviruses, which can also cause pinkeye

Other viruses that more rarely cause pneumonia include herpes simplex, measles, and chickenpox.

Viruses that cause pneumonia travel through the air in droplets of fluid after someone sneezes or coughs. These fluids can get into your body through your nose or mouth. You can also get viral pneumonia after touching a virus-covered doorknob or keyboard and then touching your mouth or nose.

Viral pneumonia usually moves in steadily over a few days. On the first day it feels like the flu, with symptoms like:

After a day or so your fever might get worse. You might also feel like you can’t catch your breath. If your lungs are invaded with bacteria, you might get  bacterial pneumonia, which is the most common type. Symptoms are more severe, but like other types of pneumonia may include:

  • A wet, gunky cough that produces green, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Chills that make you shake
  • Fatigue (feeling very tired)
  • Low appetite
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain, especially when you cough or take a deep breath
  • Sweating a lot
  • Fast breathing and heartbeat
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Confusion, especially if you’re older

You can do these things to help lower your odds of getting viral pneumonia:

  • Get a flu shot every year.
  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after you go to the bathroom and before you eat.
  • Eat right, with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.

Your doctor might be able to tell if you have viral pneumonia just by examining you and asking questions about your symptoms and general health. Chances are your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. That’s because certain sounds can mean fluid is in your lungs. But if your doctor isn’t sure, you might have to get a chest X-ray.

Some people might need extra tests. These might include:

  • A pulse oximetry (a small gizmo clipped to your finger that measures the amount of oxygen in your blood)
  • Blood tests
  • Tests of the gunk you cough up (sputum tests)
  • A CT scan to look more closely at your lungs
  • A pleural fluid culture (where your doctor takes some fluid from your chest through a needle)
  • Bronchoscopy -- a look into your lungs through a scope

Your doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics because they don’t kill viruses. Usually, viral pneumonia just has to run its course. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe an antiviral medication. They might also suggest medication for pain and fever.

Here are some things you can do that will help you feel 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’re not coughing anything out.

You’ll begin to feel better as the virus runs its course. This usually takes a few days. But you might not feel completely better for about 1 to 3 weeks. If you’re elderly or have other medical conditions, your recovery could take longer. Make sure you keep your follow-up appointments so your doctor can check your lungs.

Hospital stays for viral pneumonia aren’t common. But if your case is stubborn or severe and you do have to go to the hospital, you might get:

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

If you have an influenza virus, your doctor may prescribe medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), or zanamivir (Relenza). These drugs keep flu viruses from spreading in your body.

If RSV is the cause of your pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe a medication such as ribavirin (Virazole). This helps to limit the spread of viruses.