Pneumonia in Children

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes air sacs in your child’s lungs to fill with fluid or pus. The infection can be caused by a virus, bacteria or a fungus.

Children are more likely than adults to develop pneumonia because their airways are smaller and their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Continuum of care: Pediatricians and other specialists — including pediatric infectious disease specialists and pediatric pulmonologists — at Rush will work closely with you, your child and each other to expertly diagnose, treat and monitor your child’s pneumonia.
  • Preventive vaccinations: Pediatricians at Rush offer routine vaccinations that can help prevent pneumonia in children.
  • A kid-friendly inpatient experience: If your child needs to be hospitalized for pneumonia, Child Life Services specialists at Rush University Children’s Hospital help your child cope with the physical, social and emotional challenges of hospitalization.
  • Family-centered care: The heart of Rush University Children’s Hospital is family-centered care, which means you will be involved in every care decision for your child. We believe children’s families are integral members of the care team.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is often caused by an infection in your child’s nose or throat that moves to the lungs. Fluid then begins to gather in your child’s lungs, making it harder for the lungs to work properly. Pneumonia tends to be more serious in children under the age of 5.

The following children are at increased risk for pneumonia:

  • Children with weakened immune systems
  • Children with asthma and chronic lung diseases
  • Children who have not received vaccinations
  • Children exposed to secondhand smoke

Pneumonia symptoms in children

Pneumonia symptoms usually begin like a cold with a runny nose and coughing. Symptoms then get worse and may include a high fever, abdominal pain and difficulty breathing.

Contact your child’s pediatrician if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fast breathing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Cough with phlegm
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

Get medical help immediately if your child has any of the following:

  • Blue or gray color to the lips or fingernails (this means that your child is not getting enough oxygen)
  • Trouble breathing or breathing too fast

Care for pneumonia at Rush

Diagnosis

Your child’s pediatrician will first perform a physical exam. This will include listening to your child’s lungs for abnormal sounds, such as crackling or wheezing when your child breathes.

Your pediatrician may order the following tests to help diagnose your child’s problem:

  • A chest X-ray can show inflammation in the lungs.
  • A blood test, such as a complete blood count, can show if your child’s immune system is actively fighting an infection.
  • A sputum culture tests a sample of spit or phlegm from coughing to figure out what germ is causing the infection.

Treatment at home

Most children can recover at home with the help of medication:

  • Antibiotics are effective if your child’s pneumonia is caused by bacteria. Your child should start to improve within a few days of starting the prescription.
  • Antiviral medicines may help your child recover more quickly if your child’s pneumonia is caused by a virus. Viral pneumonia often has more mild symptoms, but it may take longer — one to three weeks — for symptoms to improve.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications can lower your child’s fever and decrease pain, such as headache or soreness from coughing.

Do not give your child a cough suppressant. It stops the lungs from clearing mucus, which may prolong the infection.

Your child also needs to drink plenty of fluids. This prevents dehydration and helps your child’s body to flush out the infection.

Hospitalization

Children with severe symptoms may need to recover from pneumonia in the hospital. Also, children who often get pneumonia or have chronic problems that put them more at risk of complications, may benefit from care and observation in a hospital setting.

If your child has the following problems, your pediatrician may recommend hospitalization:

  • A child with severe breathing problems may need oxygen therapy. This treatment increases the amount of oxygen your child’s lungs receive and can then deliver to the blood.
  • A child who is vomiting or cannot eat or drink may need intravenous fluids and medication.
  • A child whose infection has spread to the bloodstream may need intravenous antibiotics.

Prevention

There are a number of vaccines to prevent pneumonia in children. When you follow your pediatrician’s routine vaccination schedule, your child will receive the following immunizations that protect against pneumonia:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine protects against a type of bacteria that can cause pneumonia and meningitis.
  • DTaP vaccine prevents pertussis (whooping cough), which can cause pneumonia.
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine protects your child from a common cause of bacterial pneumonia. A second type of pneumococcal vaccine provides additional protection to children with chronic health conditions.
  • Influenza (flu) vaccine is a yearly shot to prevent flu. Because many people get pneumonia after having the flu, it also prevents pneumonia.