Signs of Pneumonia—8 Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

Fever and cough are typical symptoms of this common lung infection. Here's what else to watch for.

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When cold and flu season strikes, pneumonia isn't far behind. The same viruses that make you sneeze and spike a fever can also infect your lungs. Medline Plus explained if you're fighting a cold or the flu, these illnesses may lead to a viral or bacterial form of pneumonia.

But don't be lulled into thinking you're safe from infection once winter is done. Despite a seasonal uptick, this common lung disease can occur any time of the year. Pneumonia is spread through coughing, sneezing, touching, or breathing germy air. You can also get it from inhaling foreign matter into the lungs. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) described how when these germs or foreign materials get into your lungs, it can cause inflammation and lead to a pneumonia infection.

Young children, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable, according to the NHLBI. But even healthy young adults can land in the hospital or die from pneumonia when it's severe. That said, symptoms to be on the lookout for include cough, difficulty breathing, and fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The pneumonias that a person can get will differ at different points in their life and with different risk factors," Aaron Glatt, MD, chief of infectious diseases at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, New York, and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said.

Per the NHLBI, typically, your nose and airways filter out unwanted bugs. But when these invaders pass through to one or both lungs (often after you've had a cold or the flu), or if your immune system is too weak to defend against an infectious assault, tiny air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli, become inflamed and fill with fluid or pus.

According to Medline Plus, pneumonia can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Additionally, a case of pneumonia caused by a virus can turn into bacterial pneumonia.

Yale Medicine cited Streptococcus pneumoniae (also known as pneumococcus) as the most common culprit for bacterial pneumonia.

Nemours Children's Health stated that viruses are more typically the culprit in children. Causes of viral pneumonia include influenza (the flu virus), rhinovirus (the common cold), and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus, which is common in infants and children). In addition, Nemours Children's Health explained that viral pneumonia tends to have a slower onset and be milder in kids. In contrast, when kids get bacterial pneumonia, they tend to get sicker, faster. If you are concerned about your child's health, check in with your healthcare provider or call 911 if you believe it is an emergency.

Yale Medicine described other different types of pneumonia. One type occurs when folks are in the hospital for something else. This is known as "hospital-acquired pneumonia" or "healthcare-associated pneumonia." According to Yale Medicine, the most common type of pneumonia is community-acquired pneumonia, also called walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia tends to be a milder type of infection.

Additionally, another type of pneumonia is called aspiration pneumonia. Medline Plus explained this type of pneumonia happens when food, liquid, saliva, or vomit makes its way into the lungs.

Johns Hopkins Medicine also described the risks of vaping and developing pneumonia. Vaping has been linked to deaths across the country and is associated with lipoid pneumonia. Vaping may also irritate the lungs through the inhalation of chemicals found in many vaping products. Chemical pneumonia can develop after inhaling chemicals that cause your lungs to become inflamed, and lipoid pneumonia is caused when lipids (which are essentially fatty acids) enter the lungs, causing them to become inflamed.

Symptoms for both lipoid and chemical pneumonia are similar to those accompanying bacterial pneumonia (cough, shortness of breath, fever, shallow breathing, chest pain, and loss of appetite, according to the American Lung Association).

Dr. Glatt said the signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary too: "It's a constellation of symptoms that the doctor looks at, not one particular finding." When diagnosing, your healthcare provider will consider your physical exam, diagnostic test results, and medical history.

Here are some common signs and symptoms of pneumonia. If you've been troubled by any of these, get checked out!

01 of 09

Cough

Depending on the type of pneumonia and other factors, you can have a dry cough or a chesty, sputum-producing one.

"People that have a typical bacterial pneumonia will more frequently have a phlegmy kind of a cough," said Dr. Glatt. The mucus they cough up is "dirtier, thicker, and ugly," Dr. Glatt said.

By contrast, viral pneumonia often (but not always) produces less phlegm, and people whose immune systems are not working well may not produce any at all, Dr. Glatt said.

02 of 09

Fever

An elevated body temperature is very frequently associated with bacterial and viral pneumonia.

"However, the absence of a fever doesn't rule out pneumonia," Dr. Glatt said. Dr. Glatt said a low temperature, known as hypothermia, may also be a sign of bacterial pneumonia, and it's possible to contract pneumonia and have a normal temperature.

03 of 09

Shivering

Teeth-chattering chills may be a sign of pneumonia–and we're not talking about the goosebumps you get when the temperature drops. Pneumonia-related chills usually come on quickly, and they can be pretty intense.

This type of shivering is typically accompanied by fever and may signal the growth of bacteria in the bloodstream, explained Charles Dela Cruz, MD, PhD, associate professor at Yale School of Medicine and director of the Center for Pulmonary Infection Research and Treatment in New Haven.

04 of 09

Shortness of Breath

If you have pneumonia, you may have difficulty breathing. Dr. Glatt said that you might increase your breathing rate to try to compensate, leaving you feeling short of breath.

If the infection is compromising your lung function, you may not be able to deliver enough oxygen to your blood. Some people require supplemental oxygen or treatments to help them breathe with pneumonia. In severe cases, Dr. Glatt said a tube might be inserted into the airway to help the person breathe.

A child with pneumonia who has difficulty getting enough oxygen might have lips or fingernails that turn bluish. Seek medical care immediately if you notice this in a child you are caring for.

05 of 09

Chest Discomfort or Pain

Labored breathing or coughing can exhaust the muscles, making it hurt to breathe or cough. Or, you might have some pneumonia-related chest discomfort because it's your lungs that are infected.

But if you're having sharp chest pain, it could be due to the inflammatory effects of pneumonia throughout the body. "There are some instances where pneumonia can lead to heart attack," said Dr. Dela Cruz. So call 911 if you have sudden chest pain and other symptoms of a heart attack.

06 of 09

Clammy or Sweaty Skin

When your body is trying to fight off an infection like pneumonia, you can have profuse sweating or skin that feels clammy to the touch.

Don't take this symptom lightly, Dr. Dela Cruz said, because it can be a sign of sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication of pneumonia that occurs in response to bacteria in the blood.

07 of 09

Dizziness or Confusion

When pneumonia becomes sepsis, the body's immune system begins to wreak havoc. As a result, blood pressure drops, urine output is low, and even your mental capacity can be affected. You may feel dizzy or confused, a sign that you need hospital care–stat!

"These are really bad signs that the pneumonia is out of control," Dr. Dela Cruz said.

08 of 09

Nonspecific Symptoms

Much like adults, infants, toddlers, and young children with pneumonia may have a fever, chills, or labored breathing.

But watch for less specific symptoms as well. Nemours Children's Health lists the symptoms above to watch for in children and several other symptoms. These other symptoms include poor feeding in infants who may then become dehydrated, for example. Children may have a loss of appetite. And kids won't be full of energy. Pneumonia in kids can also lead to abdominal pain or vomiting.

09 of 09

How To Tell if It's Bronchitis or Pneumonia

The key difference between bronchitis and pneumonia? Usually, it's the scope of symptoms and their severity.

Bronchitis is an infection of the inner mucous lining of the branch-like passageways (called bronchial tubes) that carry air to the lungs.

"In an [otherwise] healthy person, bronchitis would be more of a hacking type of cough," Dr. Glatt said. However, you start to think of pneumonia when the cough is coupled with a fever and breathing problems, said Dr. Dela Cruz.

Of course, when you're sick with one of these conditions, it may be impossible for you to distinguish one from the other–another reason why it's essential to seek medical attention. For example, a healthcare provider may order a chest X-ray to help determine whether bronchitis or pneumonia is causing your symptoms.

And regardless of whether it is bronchitis or pneumonia, any difficulty in breathing should warrant a trip to a healthcare provider.

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