Pneumonia can be difficult to spot. The respiratory infection often mimics a cold or the flu. Symptoms of pneumonia caused by a virus, for example, may last for several days to a few weeks before you call your doctor. What's more, signs and symptoms can vary greatly, depending on underlying conditions and the type of organism causing the infection. Main symptoms of pneumonia categorized by cause follow.
Bacterial pneumonia symptoms
Most people who experience bacterial pneumonia get sick very quickly. However, other signs and symptoms will depend upon the type of bacteria causing pneumonia and are categorized as either typical or atypical.
Typical pneumonia symptoms – This type of pneumonia typically comes on very quickly. However, chest pain associated with typical pneumonia can also be a sign of other serious medical conditions. Symptoms of typical pneumonia include:
- chest pain, which is usually worse with breathing or coughing
- high fever
- shaking chills
- short of breath
- sore chest when you touch or press it
- yellow or brown sputum
Atypical pneumonia symptoms - Symptoms of atypical pneumonia, or “walking pneumonia”, typically come on gradually. Unlike cases of typical pneumonia, you may not experience any chest pain and body temperature is usually lower, while shaking chills are less likely. Older people can experience confusion or a change in mental abilities as a sign of pneumonia or other infection. Other symptoms of walking pneumonia include:
- abdominal pain
- another preceding illness
- a cough that only produces a little sputum
- body aches
- dry cough
- joint pain
Fungal pneumonia symptoms
Fungal pneumonia is rare in the United States. One characteristic of this type of pneumonia is a persistent fever, especially if the fever is unresponsive to broad-spectrum antibiotics. However, it is important to note that a fungal infection which causes pneumonia can affect many other parts of the body, including the:
Typical symptoms of pneumonia caused by fungal infection include:
Viral pneumonia symptoms
Infections caused by viruses tend to develop more slowly, after a few days of flu-like symptoms. They can cause a hacky or barky cough, headache, and pain under the breastbone. Other symptoms of viral pneumonia include:
Complications of pneumonia that may occur depend on overall health and the type and extent of pneumonia diagnosed. Complications can be life-threatening, as the organisms that cause pneumonia can overwhelm the immune system, even in otherwise healthy people. People diagnosed with heart failure or lung problems (including older people and smokers), are more likely to develop complications, some of which can be life-threatening. Possible complications of pneumonia include:
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) - Pneumonia involves most areas of the lungs, making breathing difficult and can deprive the body of oxygen.
Infected bloodstream - In some cases, a pneumonia infection may invade the bloodstream (bacteremia) or can quickly spread to other organs (septicemia).
Lung abscess - A cavity containing pus (abscess) can form within the area affected by pneumonia.
Lung infection – Sometimes during an pneumonia infection, a secondary bacterial lung infection after a viral infection. Additionally, fluid cab accumulate between the thin, transparent membrane covering the lungs (pleura) and the inner surface of the chest wall and may become infected, causing pleural effusion or empyema.
Secondary infection - Vaginal infection or infections of the digestive system are possible during pneumonia because of antibiotic therapy. Infection caused by swelling of the covering of the spinal cord (meningitis), infection of a joint caused by spread of bacteria through the bloodstream (septic arthritis), and infection of the heart muscle or the sac surrounding the heart (endocarditis or pericarditis) are also possible.
Trouble breathing - Inflammation caused by pneumonia can fill the air sacs in the lungs and interfere with breathing.
When to seek help
Pneumonia can be life threatening. Seek medical help as soon as possible if you develop characteristic symptoms of pneumonia; mainly a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and an unexplained fever accompanied by chills and sweating — or if you suddenly feel worse after a cold or the flu. Older adults, smokers, excessive drinkers or anyone with a suppressed immune system should be especially vigilant about the development of pneumonia symptoms. Call a doctor immediately if you develop:
Call 911 immediately if you:
Also call your doctor if you develop classic symptoms of pneumonia, such as shortness of breath, cough, and fever. Continue reading here to learn more about how doctors use medical tests to diagnose bacterial and walking pneumonia.