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What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites. Pneumonia often begins after an upper respiratory tract infection in the nose or throat. Symptoms of pneumonia usually begin two or three days after the start of a cold or a sore throat. The symptoms of pneumonia vary and depend on the age of the child and the cause.

Fever, chills, cough, rapid breathing, wheezing, labored breathing, vomiting, chest pain, abdominal pain, decreased activity, loss of appetite or poor feeding (in infants), and blue or gray lips and fingernails are all possible symptoms of pneumonia. The child's only symptoms might be fever and rapid breathing. Sometimes there may not be any breathing problems, only fever and stomach pain.

When bacteria is the cause, the child usually gets sick quickly with high fever and rapid breathing. When a virus is the cause, symptoms generally appear gradually and are typically less severe than with bacterial pneumonia. Wheezing is often present with viral pneumonia.

The symptoms can often indicate which germ is causing the illness. Pneumonia caused by mycoplasma, called "walking pneumonia", often causes a sore throat and headache. In infants, pneumonia due to chlamydia can cause redness of the eyes with no fever and very little illness. Pneumonia due to pertussis, the whooping cough bacteria, causes coughing spells and the child may turn blue from lack of air or make a whooping sound when inhaling.

How can pneumonia be prevented?

There are vaccines available to prevent infections by viruses and bacteria. Most children receive immunizations against haemophilus influenzae and pertussis (whooping cough) in a routine DTP injection. Some viruses that cause pneumonia are the influenza virus (the flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza virus, and adenovirus. Viruses most the most common cause of pneumonia. Children with chronic illnesses may be given additional vaccines or other protective medication. Doctors may give antibiotics to prevent pneumonia in children who have been in contact with someone with certain types of pneumonia. Children with HIV may also be given special antibiotics to prevent pneumonia. Antiviral medication can be used to prevent some types of viral pneumonia, or to make it less severe.

How long will it last?

Most bacterial pneumonia can be cured in one to two weeks. Viral pneumonia usually lasts a little longer. Mycoplasmal pneumonia can last four to six weeks.

Is it contagious?

Bacteria or viruses that are contagious generally cause pneumonia, so it is best to keep children away from anyone who has pneumonia or an upper respiratory tract infection. If someone in your home has a respiratory infection or throat infection, be careful about not sharing drinking glasses or cutlery and wash your hands if you are handling tissues used by that person.

The viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia are usually found in body fluids from the mouth or nose of the infected child. The illness is spread through coughs, sneezes, drinking glasses, kitchen utensils and in used tissues or handkerchiefs.

What can I do at home?

If the doctor has prescribed antibiotics for your child's pneumonia, it is important to follow the directions and finish the medicine. Don't be tempted to stop treatment when the child seems to be better. This ensures that your child will recover and will help prevent the bacteria from spreading to others in your home. Use a cool-mist vaporizer and encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids, especially if fever is present. Cough medicine stops the lungs from clearing mucous, and may not always be a good idea in treating a patient with pneumonia.

If your child has chest pain, a heating pad or warm compress on the chest should help relieve the discomfort. Take your child's temperature once each morning and evening, and call your doctor if it goes above 102 degrees. Check your child's lips and fingernails to make sure that they are not blue or gray. If they are, then your child is not getting enough oxygen.

What about the doctor?

Doctors typically diagnose pneumonia after a physical examination, and possibly a chest x-ray, blood tests, and taking bacterial cultures of mucus from coughing. Normally pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics given at home. The antibiotic used depends on what type of pneumonia your child has. Infants are usually hospitalized if the pneumonia is caused by pertussis or other bacterial pneumonia, or if their lung infection spreads into the bloodstream. A child might be hospitalized if he has a chronic illness that affects the immune system. If he is vomiting too much to take medicine by mouth, if he is having trouble breathing, if he has recurrent pneumonia, or if his skin color shows that he is not getting enough oxygen the doctor will likely recommend a hospital stay. If your child has any of the signs and symptoms of pneumonia, call your doctor immediately.