Walking pneumonia is a nonmedical term that people use to describe cases of milder pneumonia. Doctors call this atypical pneumonia. However, both atypical and typical pneumonia can cause severe symptoms and require hospitalization.
This article will discuss the key differences between these two types of pneumonia, including causes and treatments. If a person experiences problems breathing, they should always seek medical attention before their condition worsens.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that affects the small air sacs in the lungs. The lungs begin to fill with fluid or pus, which reduces their ability to open and close and, therefore, exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Atypical pneumonia and pneumonia are both lung infections — atypical pneumonia tends to be less serious than typical pneumonia. However, according to a 2018 study, 1–30% of patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) with documented pneumonia have severe atypical pneumonia.
Walking pneumonia occurs when the bacteria that cause it are “atypical.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers define bacteria in this way if they are difficult to detect using normal bacterial methods.
Atypical pneumonia symptoms are typically less severe than pneumonia symptoms.
However, some people with atypical pneumonia do develop severe symptoms and require hospitalization.
The most common symptoms of atypical pneumonia include:
Pneumonia causes moderate to severe symptoms that include:
- appetite loss
- blue tint to the lips and fingernail beds
- chest pain that worsens with deep breathing
- cough, which is often productive with mucus that is green, yellow, or blood-tinged
- extreme fatigue
- nausea and vomiting
- rapid, shallow breathing
- shortness of breath
These symptoms can be life-threatening, especially a very high fever and problems breathing.
A variety of bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia.
Atypical bacteria typically cause atypical pneumonia.
These bacteria include:
- Legionella pneumophila
- Chlamydia pneumoniae
- Mycoplasma pneumonia
Bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia. According to the American Lung Association, bacterial pneumonia is the most common pneumonia form and tends to be more serious than other types. The bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae is a common bacterial cause, according to the CDC.
Some key differences between viral and bacterial pneumonia in terms of symptoms include:
Doctors usually perform more extensive testing for pneumonia than atypical pneumonia.
A doctor may be able to diagnose walking pneumonia based on a description of a person’s symptoms.
They may recommend diagnostic testing, such as a chest X-ray, blood sample, or sputum samples to identify how the illness affects a person’s body or what organism is causing it.
If a doctor thinks a person has pneumonia, they may conduct more extensive testing, such as:
- blood and sputum cultures to determine the organism causing the pneumonia
- chest X-ray to determine how the condition is affecting a person’s lungs
- pulse oximetry monitoring to measure the fluctuating oxygen levels in a person’s blood as their symptoms worsen or improve
If a person is severely ill, a doctor may admit them to the hospital and order further invasive tests. Examples include a computed tomography (CT) scan or an arterial blood gas test, which involves taking blood from an artery to determine how well oxygen is traveling around a person’s body.
Atypical pneumonia does not usually need hospital treatment and might respond to home treatments. However, people with typical pneumonia may require extensive treatments as the condition can be life-threatening.
A doctor can treat atypical pneumonia with antibiotics depending on the severity of the symptoms.
At-home treatments for walking pneumonia include:
- drinking fluids
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines and cough medications to reduce symptoms
- taking fever-reducing medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
If a person has bacterial pneumonia, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Other treatments aim to reduce a person’s symptoms and support their health.
- taking fever-reducing medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- drinking plenty of warmed fluids to thin secretions and make them easier to cough up
- avoiding substances known to worsen infections, such as first and secondhand smoke from cigarettes, wood smoke, and furnaces
- resting to reduce oxygen demand
According to a 2019 article, the treatment for viral pneumonia typically focuses on managing the symptoms. Treatments include:
- supplemental oxygen
- monitoring and replacing fluids
- ensuring the person maintains their calorie needs
A healthcare professional can also administer antiviral medication.
For severe cases of pneumonia, a person may require oxygen therapy or even intubation and breathing support from a ventilator to get enough oxygen.
If this is the case, a person will be in a hospital ICU. They may require fluids and medications to support their blood pressure while they recover.
The recovery times can vary.
The cough may linger for a month or more even when other symptoms have gone.
Recovery times for pneumonia can vary based on a person’s symptoms.
According to the American Lung Association, some people may feel better after a week, whereas others may take a month or so. However, most people will feel tired for about a month.
If a person has bacterial pneumonia, they may begin to recover in 1–3 days after antibiotic treatment.
Viral pneumonia typically improves 1–3 weeks after antiviral treatment.
People who are in the hospital may require a prolonged stay and even rehabilitation during or after their discharge to feel better.
They might continue to cough and feel weak for some time after leaving the hospital if their condition was very severe.
Anyone can contract pneumonia.
Everyone is at risk of contracting walking pneumonia. However, according to the CDC, school-aged children and young adults tend to develop it more often than others.
Other susceptible people include those who live together and those who work in crowded settings, including:
- nursing homes
If a person has a weakened immune system or respiratory condition, they may be more likely to develop a serious illness.
Some people are more vulnerable to pneumonia and may experience more severe complications when they have it, according to the American Lung Association.
- people who are immunocompromised due to illness or medications, including those with cancer and HIV
- people who have serious underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or cirrhosis
- those age 65 and older
- very young children
A person should seek emergency medical attention if they experience the following pneumonia symptoms:
- a high-grade fever
- a bluish tint to lips and nail beds
- shortness of breath and difficulty catching one’s breath
- coughing up blood
- confusion, which is likely due to lack of oxygen
A person should seek medical attention at their doctor’s office if they experience the following symptoms:
- pain with breathing
- fever that does not go away
- sore throat
- fatigue that does not improve
Pneumonia and COVID-19
Some symptoms of pneumonia and the new coronavirus overlap.
Overlapping symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- bluish lips
- chest pain
If a person experiences any of these symptoms, they should seek medical help.
A person should seek emergency medical help if they experience:
- difficulty breathing
- persistent pressure or pain in the chest
- blue tint to the lips and face
To prevent contracting pneumonia, a person should practice good hygiene, such as regularly washing hands and maintain a healthful lifestyle.
A person can help reduce the risk of catching pneumonia by getting a pneumonia shot.
Walking or atypical pneumonia and pneumonia are two types of respiratory illnesses.
Both can cause severe symptoms, but pneumonia is more likely to cause serious illness and hospitalization.
A person should seek immediate treatment if they are having problems breathing, a very high fever, or a bluish tint to their lips and fingernails.