Pneumonia is the medical term for inflammation of one or both lungs. The condition can occur as a result of a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. Symptoms depend partly on the person’s age and the type of pneumonia they have.

While some people may not need medical treatment for pneumonia, others may require such treatment to help prevent long-term health complications or even death.

This article outlines the early symptoms of pneumonia, the different kinds of pneumonia, and the differences between pneumonia, colds, and the flu. We also discuss treatment options and recovery times for people with pneumonia.

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The early symptoms of pneumonia may be similar to those of influenza, especially if a person has viral pneumonia.

Early symptoms of pneumonia include:

Depending on the type of pneumonia a person has, symptoms may develop gradually or come on very suddenly.

The symptoms of pneumonia vary by type.

Bacterial pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia occurs when bacteria find their way into a lung and begin to multiply. This triggers an immune response that causes inflammation in the lower respiratory tract.

There are two types of bacterial pneumonia: typical and atypical. Atypical pneumonia differs from typical pneumonia in the following ways:

  • the bacteria responsible may cause slightly different symptoms
  • the bacteria may appear different on a chest X-ray
  • the bacteria may respond to different antibiotics

The most common type of typical bacterial pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Some bacteria that may cause atypical bacterial pneumonia include:

  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Chlamydophila pneumoniae
  • Legionella pneumophila

Symptoms of bacterial pneumonia may include:

  • audible crackles in the chest when breathing
  • dry, or “nonproductive,” cough
  • wet, or “productive,” cough that may produce yellow, green, brown, or blood-tinged mucus
  • chest pain that may worsen during coughing or physical activity
  • shortness of breath
  • a temperature higher than 100.4°F (38°C) or lower than 95°F (35°C)
  • increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • body aches and pains

Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonia develops in response to a viral infection. It tends to affect both lungs.

In adults, the most common cause of viral pneumonia is the influenza virus. In children, the most frequent cause is respiratory syncytial virus.

Many other virus types may cause viral pneumonia, including:

Viral pneumonia symptoms are very similar to those of bacterial pneumonia. However, a person may experience additional symptoms, such as:

Fungal pneumonia

Fungal pneumonia is more likely to affect people who have a chronic underlying health condition or a weakened immune system due to disease or the use of immunosuppressant medications. The most common type of fungal pneumonia in such populations is pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP).

Pneumocystis jirovecii is the fungus that causes PCP. The fungus attaches itself to the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, within the lungs, prompting the immune system to launch an inflammatory response. It is this response that causes damage to the lungs.

A person may also develop fungal pneumonia following exposure to fungal spores from soil. The following types of pneumonia-causing fungi exist in soil in some areas of the United States:

  • Coccidioidomycosis
  • Histoplasmosis
  • Cryptococcus

Symptoms of fungal pneumonia include:

  • dry cough
  • low-grade fever
  • breathing difficulties that may come on suddenly or worsen gradually over the course of several weeks

Viral vs. bacterial pneumonia symptoms

Although viral and bacterial pneumonia symptoms can be very similar, there are some key differences between the two. The section below outlines some examples.

  • Lungs affected: Bacterial pneumonia tends to affect one particular part, or lobe, of a lung, whereas viral pneumonia typically affects both lungs.
  • Symptom onset: The symptoms of bacterial pneumonia can develop either suddenly or gradually, whereas symptoms of viral pneumonia typically develop over several days.
  • Symptoms: People with bacterial pneumonia usually experience a higher temperature and a wet cough, whereas people with viral pneumonia tend to experience a lower temperature and a dry cough. Also, those with viral pneumonia often present with the flu and gastrointestinal symptoms, which people with bacterial pneumonia typically do not develop.

The symptoms of pneumonia can vary across different age groups.

Babies and infants may not show any signs of infection. If symptoms do appear, they may include:

According to the American Lung Association (ALS), older adults are more likely to experience fewer and milder symptoms of pneumonia compared with people in younger age groups.

However, older adults are at increased risk of developing a sudden change in mental awareness as a result of pneumonia.

Pneumonia, the common cold, and the flu are different respiratory conditions. The table below outlines the similarities and differences in symptoms among these three conditions.

Symptom onsetgradualfastgradual or fast
Achessometimes, not severeusualcommon
Sneezingcommonsometimessometimes in children
Coughcommon, mild to moderatecommonusual, sometimes with mucus or phlegm
Stuffy nosecommonsometimessometimes in children
Sore throatcommonsometimessometimes in children

Several home remedies and medical treatments can help people recover from a case of pneumonia.

Home remedies

There are several steps a person can take to help their body heal from pneumonia. Examples include:

  • taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help control pain and fever
  • drinking plenty of fluids to maintain hydration and loosen phlegm
  • using humidifiers, as well as taking steamy baths or showers, to make breathing easier
  • avoiding smoking or being around secondhand smoke or wood smoke
  • resting as much as possible to help promote healing

Learn more about home remedies for pneumonia here.

Medical treatment

The medical treatment for pneumonia depends on the type of pneumonia a person has.

Bacterial pneumonia

Doctors will prescribe antibiotics for people with bacterial pneumonia. A doctor may ask a person to come back within 2 days to assess the treatment and to make sure that people do not require hospitalization.

A doctor may also suggest that a person does the following to reduce their risk of bacterial pneumonia in the future:

Viral pneumonia

A doctor may prescribe antiviral medication for viral pneumonia. However, many people will recover simply by resting and managing their symptoms at home.

If a person has both viral and bacterial pneumonia, their doctor may also prescribe antibiotics.

Fungal pneumonia

If a person has fungal pneumonia, a doctor may prescribe a course of oral or intravenous therapy. This may consist of an antifungal treatment along with possibly glucocorticoids to reduce lung inflammation.

Some people may require mechanical ventilation to help them breathe.

Recovery times for pneumonia differ from person to person.

According to the ALS, some people experience symptom improvement within 1 week, while others may experience symptom improvement after a month or more. In either case, symptoms of tiredness and lethargy may continue for another month or so.

It is important to follow treatment recommendations from a doctor. Doing so will reduce the risk of complications. Possible complications of pneumonia include:

  • respiratory failure resulting in a need for mechanical ventilation
  • lung abscesses, where pus forms inside or around the lung
  • sepsis, which is uncontrolled inflammation that may lead to organ failure and can be fatal

It is important to contact a doctor if a person believes that they or a member of their family is experiencing symptoms of pneumonia. While some people may be able to recover at home without medical assistance, others may need medication or hospitalization.

People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience any of the following symptoms:

Pneumonia refers to inflammation of one or both lungs. The condition can develop as a result of a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection of the lungs.

The symptoms of pneumonia may vary according to a person’s age and the type of pneumonia they have. Possible symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, and fever or chills.

For people who are otherwise healthy, pneumonia symptoms may begin to improve within a month or so. Some people recover at home simply by resting and using over-the-counter medications. Others may require medical treatment or hospitalization.

A person should see their doctor if they experience symptoms of pneumonia. Anyone who experiences severe symptoms should seek emergency medical attention.