Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
This article covers community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) in children. This type of pneumonia occurs in healthy children who have not recently been in the hospital or another health care facility.
Pneumonia that affects people in health care facilities, such as hospitals, is often caused by germs that are harder to treat.
Viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia in infants and children.
Ways your child can get CAP include:
- Bacteria and viruses living in the nose, sinuses, or mouth may spread to the lungs.
- Your child may breathe some of these germs directly into her lungs.
- Your child breathes in food, liquids, or vomit from her mouth into her lungs.
Risk factors that increase a child's chance of getting CAP include:
- Being younger than 6 months of age
- Being born prematurely
- Birth defects, such as cleft palate
- Nervous system problems, such as seizures or cerebral palsy
- Heart or lung disease present at birth
- Weak immune system (this can occur due to cancer treatment or disease such as HIV/AIDS)
- Recent surgery or trauma
Common symptoms of pneumonia in children include:
- Stuffed up or runny nose, headaches
- Loud cough
- Fever, which may be mild or high, with chills and sweating
- Rapid breathing, with flared nostrils and straining of the muscles between the ribs
- Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when breathing deeply or coughing
- Low energy and malaise (not feeling well)
- Vomiting or loss of appetite
Symptoms common in children with more severe infections include:
- Blue lips and finger nails due to too little oxygen in the blood
- Confusion or very hard to arouse
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will listen to your child's chest with a stethoscope. The provider will listen for crackles or abnormal breath sounds. Tapping on the chest wall (percussion) helps the provider listen and feel for abnormal sounds.
If pneumonia is suspected, the provider will likely order a chest x-ray.
Other tests may include:
- Arterial blood gases to see if enough oxygen is getting into your child's blood from the lungs
- Blood culture and sputum culture to look for the germ that may be causing the pneumonia
- CBC to check white blood cell count
- CT scan of the chest
- Bronchoscopy -- a flexible tube with a lighted camera on the end passed down into the lungs (in rare cases)
- Removing fluid from the space between the outside lining of the lungs and the chest wall (in rare cases)
The provider must first decide whether your child needs to be in the hospital.
If treated in the hospital, your child will receive:
- Fluids, electrolytes, and antibiotics through the veins or mouth
- Oxygen therapy
- Breathing treatments to help open up the airways
Your child is more likely to be admitted to the hospital if he:
- Has another serious medical problem
- Has severe symptoms
- Is unable to eat or drink
- Is less than 3 to 6 months old
- Has pneumonia due to a harmful germ
- Has taken antibiotics at home, but isn't getting better
If your child has CAP caused by bacteria, he will be given antibiotics. Antibiotics are not given for pneumonia caused by a virus. This is because antibiotics do not kill viruses. Other medicines, such as antivirals, may be given if your child has the flu.
Many children can be treated at home. If so, your child may need to take medicines such as antibiotics or antivirals.
When giving antibiotics to your child:
- Make sure your child does not miss any doses.
- Make sure your child takes all the medicine as directed. Do not stop giving the medicine, even when your child starts feeling better.
- Do not give your child cough medicine or cold medicine unless your doctor says it is OK. Coughing helps the body get rid of mucus from the lungs.
Breathing warm, moist (wet) air helps loosen the sticky mucus that may make your child feel like she is choking. These steps may help:
- Place a warm, wet washcloth loosely over your child's nose and mouth.
- Fill a humidifier with warm water and have her breathe in the warm mist.
- Have your child take a couple of deep breaths 2 or 3 times every hour. Deep breaths will help open up your child's lungs.
Make sure your child drinks plenty of liquids, as long as the provider says it is OK.
- Drink water, juice, or weak tea
- Drink at least 6 to 10 cups a day
Make sure your child gets plenty of rest when she goes home. Have her take naps, if needed.
Most children improve in 7 to 10 days with treatment. Children who have severe pneumonia with complications may need treatment for 2 to 3 weeks. Children at risk for severe pneumonia include:
- Children whose immune system does not work well
- Children with lung or heart disease
In some cases, more serious problems may develop, including:
- Life-threatening changes in the lungs that require a breathing machine (ventilator)
- Fluid around the lung, which can become infected
- Lung abscesses
- Bacteria in blood (bacteremia)
The provider may order another x-ray. This is to make sure that your child's lungs are clear. It may take many weeks for the x-ray to clear up. Your child may feel better for awhile before the x-rays are clear.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call the provider if your child has the following symptoms:
- Bad cough
- Difficulty breathing (wheezing, grunting, rapid breathing)
- Loss of appetite
- Fever and chills
- Breathing (respiratory) symptoms that get worse
- Chest pain that gets worse when coughing or breathing in
- Signs of pneumonia and a weak immune system (such as with HIV or chemotherapy)
- Worsening symptoms after starting to get better
Teach older children to wash their hands often:
- Before eating food
- After blowing their nose
- After going to the bathroom
- After playing with friends
- After coming in contact with people who are sick
Vaccines may help prevent some types of pneumonia. Be sure to get your child vaccinated with:
When infants are too young to be immunized, parents or caregivers can get themselves immunized against vaccine-preventable pneumonia.
Bronchopneumonia - children; Community-acquired pneumonia - children; CAP - children
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Kelly MS, Sandora TJ. Community-acquired pneumonia. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 400.
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Review Date 8/31/2016
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 09/26/2018.