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Walking Pneumonia

What Is Walking Pneumonia?

It can seem like kids pick up one bug after another. Most of the time, these bugs only last for about a week. But those that last longer can sometimes turn into walking pneumonia.

Walking pneumonia, or atypical pneumonia, is a less serious form of the lung infection pneumonia. It's caused by Mycoplasmabacteria, and causes cold-like symptoms, a low-grade fever, and a hacking cough.

Most kids with this form of pneumonia will not feel sick enough to stay at home — hence, the name "walking" pneumonia. But even a child who feels fine needs to stay at home for a few days until antibiotic treatment kicks in and symptoms improve.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Walking Pneumonia?

Colds that last longer than 7 to 10 days or respiratory illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can develop into walking pneumonia. Symptoms can come on suddenly or take longer to appear. Those that start slowly tend to be more severe.

Here's what to look for:

  • a fever of 101°F (38.5°C) or below
  • headache, chills, sore throat, and other cold or flu-like symptoms
  • fast breathing or breathing with grunting or wheezing sounds
  • labored breathing that makes the rib muscles retract (when muscles under the ribcage or between ribs draw inward with each breath)
  • hacking cough
  • ear pain
  • chest pain or stomach pain
  • malaise (feeling of discomfort)
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite (in older kids) or poor feeding (in infants)
  • rash
  • joint pain

Symptoms usually depend on where the infection is concentrated. A child whose infection is in the top or middle part of the lungs will probably have labored breathing. Another whose infection is in the lower part of the lungs (near the belly) may have no breathing problems, but may have an upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting.

How Is Walking Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Walking pneumonia is usually diagnosed through a physical examination. The doctor will check your child's breathing and listen for a hallmark crackling sound that often indicates walking pneumonia.

If needed, a chest X-ray or tests of mucus samples from the throat or nose might be done to confirm the diagnosis.

How Is Walking Pneumonia Treated?

Antibiotics are an effective treatment for walking pneumonia. A 5- to 10-day course of oral antibiotics is usually recommended. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, make sure your child takes them on schedule for as long as directed to recover more quickly.

Once on antibiotics, your child has a minimal risk of passing the illness on to other family members. But encourage everyone in your household to wash their hands well and often.

Don't let your child share drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels, or toothbrushes. Wash your hands after touching any used tissues. Also make sure that your kids are up to date on their immunizations to help protect them from other infections.

How Can I Help My Child Feel Better?

Your child should drink fluids throughout the day, especially if he or she has a fever. Ask the doctor before you use a medicine to treat a cough. Cough suppressants stop the lungs from clearing mucus, which might not be helpful for lung infections like walking pneumonia.

If your child has chest pain, try placing a heating pad or warm compress on the area. Take your child's temperature at least once each morning and each evening. Call the doctor if it goes above 102°F (38.9°C) in an older infant or child, or above 100.4°F (38°C) in an infant under 6 months of age.

With treatment, most types of bacterial pneumonia go away within 1 to 2 weeks. Coughing can take up to 4 to 6 weeks to stop.

Reviewed by: Rachel S. Schare, MD
Date Reviewed: 10-09-2021

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