What Is Viral Pneumonia?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 09, 2020

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.

Am I More Likely to Get It?

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

What Are the Symptoms?

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 also get some of the same symptoms as bacterial pneumonia, like:

  • A wet, gunky cough that produces green, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Chills that make you shake
  • Fatigue (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
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Confusion, especially if you’re older

Can I Prevent Viral Pneumonia?

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

How Is It Diagnosed?

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 checks for enough oxygen in your blood)
  • Blood tests
  • Tests of the gunk you cough up (sputum tests)
  • 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

How Is It Treated?

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

Show Sources


National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Pneumonia: Causes.”

American Lung Association: “Learn About Pneumonia,” “What Causes Pneumonia?”

CDC: “Pneumonia Can Be Prevented -- Vaccines Can Help.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Pneumonia.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Pneumonia.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Pneumonia Prevention,” “Pneumonia Treatment.”

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