Atypical pneumonia is an infection of the respiratory system. It is often called walking pneumonia.

Doctors diagnose and treat pneumonia based on the type of organism causing the infection.

Symptoms are usually milder in atypical pneumonia compared with typical pneumonia. Meanwhile, there are some steps that people can take to avoid pneumonia altogether.

Atypical pneumonia is an infection affecting the lower respiratory tract.

The types of bacteria that cause it tend to create less severe symptoms than those in typical pneumonia.

If the atypical pneumonia is caused by the bacteria Mycoplasma, then it is common to have ear and sinus infections, as well.

Typical vs. atypical pneumonia

Mycoplasma bacteria illustrationShare on Pinterest
Mycoplasma can cause people to have sinus and ear infections in addition to the symptoms of atypical pneumonia.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by a pathogen. The condition may leave a person feeling fatigued.

People with pneumonia may need to rest for several days to fight off the infection. Some cases require hospitalization.

Atypical pneumonia is similar to regular pneumonia, but has a few distinct differences.

Cases of atypical pneumonia do not usually require hospitalization, and a person with it is unlikely to be significantly ill. This is why it is often called walking pneumonia.

Many people with atypical pneumonia can function normally and do most of their everyday tasks with little difficulty.

People with atypical pneumonia will also have certain symptoms that others with typical pneumonia will often not have. These might include a prominent headache, a low-grade fever, an earache, and a sore throat.

Symptoms of atypical pneumonia tend to be milder and more persistent than those of typical pneumonia, which appear suddenly, and cause a more serious illness.

Atypical pneumonia requires different antibiotics than typical pneumonia, which is commonly caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia.

Three specific infectious bacteria cause the majority of atypical pneumonia cases:

  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae usually infects people under 40 with mild pneumonia symptoms. It commonly causes earaches, headaches, and a sore throat, as well.
  • Chlamydophila pneumoniae is common in school-aged children and young adults.
  • Legionella pneumophila is more severe, generally, and seen most often in older adults, people who smoke, and those with weakened immune systems. It is also called Legionnaires' disease.

Rare cases of atypical pneumonia are caused by the bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci, which is contracted from infected birds, such as parrots, parakeets, and poultry.

Who is at risk?

Atypical pneumonia can infect anyone. There are some factors that increase the chances of developing the illness.

At-risk groups include:

  • people who smoke
  • people over the age of 65
  • children under the age of 2
  • anyone with a chronic respiratory condition
  • people with weakened or impaired immune systems

Anyone who lives or works in an area where outbreaks of atypical pneumonia commonly occur may be more at-risk, as well. These places include school and college dorms, nursing homes, and hospitals.

Is atypical pneumonia contagious?

woman sneezing and her partner looks concernedShare on Pinterest
Atypical pneumonia is contagious, spreading through close contact with infected people.

Atypical pneumonia is contagious, but it takes longer for symptoms to appear compared with other common infections, such as typical pneumonia, or cold and flu viruses.

Atypical pneumonia spreads through close contact. Coughs and sneezes that contain the infectious pathogens pass through the air from person to person.

Also, the bacteria can survive on a person's hands and spread if they rub their eyes or touch their mouth.

Legionnaires' disease usually occurs after breathing in droplets of infected water, rather than through close contact with infected people.

Symptoms of atypical pneumonia emerge slowly. Someone who has been infected may not notice symptoms until 1-4 weeks after exposure to the infection.

Once symptoms do show up, they tend to get worse over the next 2-6 days.

Symptoms can include:

  • a persistent cough that may come in fits throughout the day
  • flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chill, or cold sweat
  • a sore, dry, or itchy throat
  • a persistent headache
  • weakness or fatigue
  • chest pain when breathing deeply
  • aches and pains in the muscles and joints

The symptoms of atypical pneumonia may vary depending on the type of bacteria causing the infection.

Someone with atypical pneumonia may also experience secondary conditions, such as rashes or ear infections, especially if they have a weakened immune system.

Diagnosing atypical pneumonia requires several steps to be taken.

First, a doctor will ask questions about the symptoms and how long a person has had them. They may also ask about any contact with others who could be carrying the infection.

Diagnosis also involves a physical exam. The doctor will check for fever and note the pulse and breathing rate. Also, they will listen to the person's breathing, using a stethoscope.

The doctor will usually check oxygen levels in the blood with a small device known as a pulse oximeter that slips onto a person's finger.

Sometimes, a chest X-ray is needed. This can help tell the difference between atypical pneumonia and other conditions.

In some cases, blood tests are necessary to check a person's blood count and kidney function, and to identify the type of bacteria present. These tests are often done if there has been an outbreak of one type of atypical pneumonia.

Share on Pinterest
Non-caffeinated beverages, such as herbal tea, will help loosen congestion.

Most cases of atypical pneumonia respond well to treatment. Doctors will prescribe antibiotics for atypical pneumonia, remembering that antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria.

Also, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce symptoms, such as fever, aches, and pain.

Drinking plenty of non-caffeinated fluids, such as water and herbal tea, can loosen the phlegm and mucus. This makes it easier to cough these substances up and out of the lungs.

It is important to rest while the body is dealing with the infection. Too much physical or mental stress can weaken the immune system further and prolong symptoms.

It is also important not to take over-the-counter cold or cough medicines that suppress a cough. These medications may make it harder for the body to expel the extra mucus and sputum that is produced.

Severe cases of atypical pneumonia might need hospitalization. This is more common in people with weakened immune systems or ongoing illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease.

People diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease may also require hospitalization. They will usually be given intravenous antibiotic therapy, fluids, and breathing treatments if they struggle to keep their oxygen levels high enough.

Regular vaccinations for typical pneumonia, whooping cough, and the flu help prevent infections.

Furthermore, preventing atypical pneumonia includes, reducing the risk factors that lead to it.

Taking steps, such as quitting smoking and eating a healthful diet, can strengthen the immune system. And a stronger immune system is more likely to fight off the pathogens that cause the infections.

It is also advisable to avoid close contact with anyone who has pneumonia, while hand-washing regularly cuts down the risk of spreading the bacteria that cause the disease.

Finally, the most important prevention method might be for a person with the infection to cover their mouth during a cough or sneeze, as these are the main ways it spreads.

Outlook

Most cases of atypical pneumonia are easily treatable. Usually, people have less severe symptoms than those with typical pneumonia, and the infection may go away on its own.

Severe infections can require hospitalization, and anyone with symptoms of atypical pneumonia should see a doctor. Following medical guidance is the best way to treat this illness.