Viral Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs, and it can keep you in bed feeling very sick. It's usually caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. In the U.S. about 30% of pneumonias are viral.

Symptoms

These include:

  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in your chest when you cough or breathe
  • Rapid breathing

If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor.

Causes

Viruses that can lead to pneumonia include:

  • Influenza (flu) A and B viruses are the most common causes in adults.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is more common in infants and children than in adults.
  • Others include coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and adenoviruses, which can also cause pinkeye.

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

How Viral Pneumonia Spreads

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-laden doorknob or keyboard, then touching your mouth or nose.

Diagnosing Viral Pneumonia

Your doctor’s diagnosis will depend on how severe your infection is. If you have mild symptoms, your doctor may suggest blood tests or a chest X-ray.

If your symptoms are serious, and you are 65 or older (or an infant or young child), the doctor might recommend collecting fluids. She or he may also put a camera down your throat to check your airways.

Treatment

If a virus is causing your pneumonia, antibiotics won’t help, but your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication.

  • If you have an influenza virus, your doctor may prescribe medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), or peramivir (Rapivab). 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 (Virazol). This helps to limit the spread of viruses.

When you have pneumonia, it’s important to get plenty of rest. Check back in with your doctor after treatment to make sure your lungs are clear.

Prevention

The same steps you would take to try to prevent the flu also help lower your chance of pneumonia.

  • Wash your hands often. Scrub them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before you eat or prepare food. When you are in public places, use sanitizer.
  • Get a flu vaccination each year at the beginning of flu season.
  • Stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on May 18, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institutes of Health: “What is pneumonia?” “What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia?” “How is pneumonia treated?” “Living with pneumonia,” “What causes pneumonia?”

Spiro, S. Clinical Respiratory Medicine, 4th edition. Saunders, 2012.

CDC: “Types of influenza viruses,” “Respiratory syncytial virus infection,” “Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs),” “Adenoviruses,” “About coronavirus,” “Common colds: Protect yourself and others,” “How flu spreads,” “Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV): Transmission and prevention,” “CDC says ‘Take 3’ actions to fight the flu,” “Pneumonia can be prevented -- vaccines can help.”

Ruuskanen, O. The Lancet, April 9, 2011.

UpToDate: “Respiratory syncytial virus infection: Treatment.”

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