Pneumonia is a severe lung infection. In some people, it can be fatal, especially among the elderly and those with respiratory disorders. COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, can spread to the lungs, causing pneumonia.

While many people recover, some develop severe pneumonia that does not respond well to treatment.

In this article, we look at the relationship between COVID-19 and pneumonia, the treatment available, and precautions a person should take.

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For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

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If COVID-19 spreads to the lungs, it can cause pneumonia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. A person may have a dry cough, fever, muscle aches, and fatigue.

The virus can progress through the respiratory tract and into a person’s lungs. This causes inflammation and the air sacs, or alveoli, that can fill with fluid and pus. This progression then limits a person’s ability to take in oxygen.

People with severe cases of pneumonia may have lungs that are so inflamed they cannot take in enough oxygen or expel enough carbon dioxide.

Continuous oxygen deprivation can damage many of the body’s organs, causing kidney failure, heart failure, and other life threatening conditions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common diagnosis for severe COVID-19 is severe pneumonia. For people who do develop symptoms in the lungs, COVID-19 may be life threatening.

In China, doctors classified 81% of COVID-19 cases as mild.

These mild infections include mild cases of pneumonia. The remaining 19% of cases were more severe.

People with COVID-19 pneumonia experience changes in their lungs, including:

  • inflammation that may be so severe, it damages the lungs’ alveoli
  • fluid accumulation in the lungs
  • gas exchange difficulties that make it hard to get enough oxygen or expel enough carbon dioxide
  • fluid leaking out of blood vessels in the lungs

The symptoms of pneumonia can vary from mild to severe. However, typical symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • difficulty breathing deeply

Pneumonia is severe when a person is having difficulty breathing and experiences respiratory distress.

People with conditions that weaken the lungs or immune system may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 pneumonia.

Those conditions include:

Additionally, people over 65 years of age have a much higher risk.

To diagnose pneumonia, doctors typically perform imaging scans to look for swelling, inflammation, or fluid in the lungs. Although, sometimes, a diagnosis is possible without any imaging.

CT scans can diagnose pneumonia, though some doctors may recommend an X-ray or another type of scan.

To test for COVID-19, doctors can take a swab from the nose and the mouth.

According to the CDC, inpatient care for those with severe cases of COVID-19 typically focuses on managing the complications.

If a doctor suspects that a person is experiencing pneumonia, they may prescribe antibiotics even though this will not treat COVID-19.

People with more severe pneumonia may need to stay in the hospital. While in the hospital, a person may receive intravenous (IV) fluids and monitoring. People with breathing difficulties may need a ventilator or oxygen therapy.

To avoid contracting the coronavirus or transmitting it to someone else, a person should:

  • Avoid contact: They should avoid contact with people outside their own household, as much as possible. When contact is unavoidable, they should maintain a safe 6-foot distance from other people. They must also avoid physical contact with others, including shaking hands.
  • Wash hands frequently: Do so by using soap and warm water. Learn more about how to wash the hands properly here.
  • Not go outside: Remain at home and do not go out into public places if sick.

People who have or believe they have COVID-19 should take the following additional precautions:

  • Avoid other people, including those in the same home.
  • Wear a face covering when around other people.
  • Isolate in a single room and when using the bathroom to avoid spreading germs.
  • Do not share personal care products.
  • Practice good self-care by getting plenty of rest, eating regularly, and drinking lots of fluids.
  • Call a doctor if symptoms are severe.

According to the WHO, the pneumonia vaccine does not protect against the new coronavirus. As yet, there is no vaccine for COVID-19 either.

Vaccines for pneumonia only prevent certain types of pneumonia, such as pneumococcal pneumonia. However, these immunizations may help prevent other serious illnesses, including infections a person may contract while in hospital.

Learn more about pneumonia vaccines here.

There is no cure for COVID-19 at the current time. Treatment focuses instead on managing symptoms.

People who think they have COVID-19 do not need to see a doctor for testing or treatment unless they are severely ill.

People who become severely ill should call a doctor ahead of time to reduce the risk of spreading the disease to others.

People who cannot breathe or who feel chest tightness or other serious symptoms, such as shortness of breath or a blue tinge to the lips, should call 911 or go to the emergency room.

When calling 911, a person should tell the operator that they may have COVID-19, so first responders can take precautionary measures.

According to the CDC, as of March 2020, the outlook for severe COVID-19 illness appears to increase, depending on a person’s age:

Age (years)Fatality rate (%)
65–84 3–11%

The new coronavirus can cause severe illness, such as pneumonia. This is because it can affect the respiratory system.

Elders, people with preexisting conditions, and those with a history of severe breathing problems may be more vulnerable to severe pneumonia.

Prompt medical care can help a person breathe until the body fights off the infection, and people should call a doctor immediately if symptoms are severe.