Walking pneumonia is a lung infection that is often linked to a low-grade fever and a cough. It tends to affect children 5 years old and above.
Pneumonia causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs to become inflamed and to fill with fluid. This often causes breathing difficulties.
Walking pneumonia is also known as atypical pneumonia. It is a mild form of pneumonia and can be caused by bacteria or a virus.
In this article, we look at the symptoms of walking pneumonia in children. We also examine the treatment options for children, and what caregivers can do to help prevent the illness from spreading.
People with walking pneumonia often think that they have a cold.
Despite feeling tired or run-down, children usually think they are well enough to continue with daily activities, including going to school. This is why the condition is called “walking” pneumonia.
The symptoms of pneumonia can be very similar to those of other chest infections, such as bronchiolitis, although bronchiolitis usually affects younger children.
Symptoms can also resemble a flare-up of an existing lung condition that is marked by breathlessness, such as asthma.
Common symptoms of walking pneumonia include a cough and a low-grade fever, usually no higher than 101°F, coupled with general feelings of tiredness and a headache.
Children with walking pneumonia may also have some of the following symptoms:
- ear or sinus pain
- sore throat
- rapid or difficult breathing and wheezing
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
These symptoms may appear anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks after exposure to a virus or bacteria.
Walking pneumonia symptoms can take between a week and a month to clear up but may last for as long as 6 weeks.
Walking pneumonia is usually a mild illness, but it can develop into something else. Complications may include a more serious bout of pneumonia that requires bed rest or hospitalization. Encephalitis, which causes swelling in the brain, can develop on rare occasions.
It is important to see a doctor if the symptoms in a child with walking pneumonia become worse over time.
Caregivers should take the child’s temperature if they are fussing, uncomfortable, or feel warm. They should speak to a doctor if the child’s temperature goes above:
- 100.4°F in an infant under 6 months of age
- 102°F in an older baby or child
Other symptoms that need immediate medical attention include shortness of breath and chest pain.
A doctor will often be able to diagnose pneumonia from a child’s symptoms, taking a medical history, and doing a physical examination.
A chest X-ray may be required to rule out other chest infections with similar symptoms. A blood test and sputum culture test will sometimes be done. Sputum is the substance that is coughed up from the lungs.
Often, the mild symptoms caused by walking pneumonia do not warrant X-rays or laboratory tests. These tests are more likely to be required if the symptoms get worse.
A bacterial infection will respond to antibiotics, although they are not always needed. A viral infection will need time to run its course.
Other treatment options for children with walking pneumonia may include:
- Rest: This will help fight the illness. It is often helpful for the child to stay at home until symptoms start improving.
- Drinking more fluid: This includes water, herbal tea, and soup, especially if a fever is present. Extra fluids help prevent dehydration.
- Medication for fevers and discomfort: Cough medicine can be unhelpful because it stops the body’s own way of clearing the chest. People should only use cough medicine if told to do so by a doctor.
- Heating pad or warm compress: This should be placed on the chest if the child is comfortable with it. The warmth will help relieve any chest pain and discomfort that walking pneumonia may cause.
- Using a humidifier in the bedroom: This can help ease breathing difficulties by making sure there is moisture in the air.
Most cases of walking pneumonia caused by bacteria resolve within 1-2 weeks of the child developing symptoms while some cases may take up to 6 weeks to run their course.
Walking pneumonia in children is mostly caused by bacteria. The most common among school-aged children is Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This bacterium also causes chest colds and bronchitis in adults.
The infection is spread from person to person when tiny water droplets, containing bacteria, become airborne. This happens when a person who is infected coughs, sneezes, or talks. Others, who are nearby, then breathe in the bacteria and may become ill.
Children tend to spend a lot of time close to one another in crowded places, such as at schools and camps. This is one reason why they are more easily affected than other age groups. Not everyone who is exposed to the bacteria will develop walking pneumonia.
Colds that last longer than a week, or common cold-like respiratory illnesses, such as the respiratory syncytial virus, can develop into walking pneumonia.
A child’s risk of developing walking pneumonia can increase if their immune system is weakened by another infection. This weakness makes it easier for bacteria to get past the body’s defenses.
Children with other lung or immune system conditions may be more likely to develop walking pneumonia than those without another illness they have to fight. These illnesses may include cystic fibrosis, asthma, and cancer.
Chemotherapy, when used to treat cancer, may be another risk factor, as it weakens a person’s immune system.
There are vaccines available for some of the bacteria that cause pneumonia but not for M. pneumoniae.
Caregivers can reduce the risk of a child developing walking pneumonia by making sure that the child’s immunizations, including the flu shot, are up to date.
Good hygiene practices can go a long way toward preventing walking pneumonia in children. These habits includes frequent hand-washing and covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Once a child shows symptoms of walking pneumonia, it is important that they remember these hygiene practices to prevent spreading the infection to other people around them.
A child who has the infection should not share towels, cups, cutlery, toothbrushes, or tissues, even after treatment has started.
Even if a child feels well enough, they should not return to school until the fever has resolved and any treatment has started.
If they go to school while still carrying the germs that caused their walking pneumonia, they may spread them to other children.
Caregivers should ask their doctor how many days of treatment are needed before their child can return to school.
Children who contract walking pneumonia can expect to make a quick and full recovery, sometimes without needing to see a doctor.