Pneumonia in Babies and Children


When your little one comes down with pneumonia, it's natural to feel worried. Fortunately, with proper treatment, this illness is no longer as dangerous as it might have been in your grandparents’ day. Most babies now make a full recovery. But what is pneumonia exactly, and what signs should you look out for? Read on to learn all about the different types of pneumonia, what treatment options are available for babies, and how you can help prevent your baby from getting pneumonia in the first place.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that can make it hard or uncomfortable for your baby to breathe. It inflames the air sacs (known as alveoli) in the lungs, and this can make it more difficult for them to do their job of transferring oxygen to the blood.

In more severe cases, some of the alveoli can become blocked by the fluids generated as your little one's body fights the infection.

What Are the Signs of Pneumonia?

It's important to recognize the symptoms of pneumonia as soon as possible, so your baby can get diagnosed and treated without delay.

Call your healthcare provider immediately if you suspect your baby has pneumonia. Here are some possible signs of pneumonia in your baby:

  • Coughing, especially if combined with any of the other symptoms described here

  • Fever

  • Sweating, chills, flushed skin

  • Paleness

  • Fast or labored breathing

  • Drawing in of the chest around the ribs and breastbone when breathing

  • Wheezing

  • Flaring of the nostrils

  • More crying than usual

  • Loss of appetite

  • Lack of energy, limpness

  • Pain in the chest, especially when coughing or breathing deeply

  • Bluish lips or nails (a sign of decreased oxygen in the bloodstream).

Pneumonia Causes and Diagnosis

Pneumonia is usually caused by a virus or bacteria, or in much rarer cases by fungi or parasites.

Sometimes a combination of different germs can be at play. For example, your baby's immune system might be weakened by a virus, which makes it easier for a bacterial infection to take hold.

The two most common types of pneumonia in babies are:

  • Viral pneumonia. This is the form of pneumonia most often seen in babies. It develops when a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract — such as a cold or influenza — moves further down into the chest. The signs of viral pneumonia may appear gradually and are sometimes less severe than those of bacterial pneumonia.

  • Bacterial pneumonia. Bacteria can also cause lung infections. With this type of pneumonia, the symptoms can appear without warning, and often start with a sudden high fever and rapid breathing.

Only your healthcare provider can determine what's causing your little one's pneumonia, so it's essential to check any symptoms as soon as possible.

Pneumonia is usually diagnosed based on a physical examination, but an X-ray or blood tests might also be needed to gather more information about your little one’s condition.

Treatment of Pneumonia

It's vital to have your little one checked out by your healthcare provider as soon as possible, as the different types of pneumonia may need different forms of treatment.

In most cases, treatment for pneumonia will take place in your home. However, some babies may need to be treated in the hospital.

Bacterial pneumonia requires to be treated with antibiotics, while pneumonia caused by a virus will often clear up after a few days without any treatment (apart from plenty of rest and fluids, and the fever medication recommended by your provider).

Because it's not always easy for your healthcare provider to tell what's causing your baby's pneumonia, if there’s any doubt, the provider may prescribe an antibiotic just to be safe.

Always follow your provider’s instructions when giving your baby antibiotics or any other medicine, and make sure your little one takes the full course of antibiotics. Don’t stop early just because your baby seems better.

Avoid giving your baby a cough suppressant—such as medicines containing codeine or dextromethorphan—if they have pneumonia, as the coughing actually helps expel any fluids caused by the infection. It's also important to know that codeine and dextromethorphan have side effects that can harm children.

Make sure your baby gets plenty of rest and stays hydrated. Keep a close eye on your little one's condition and go back for another checkup if you notice any signs that the infection could be getting worse or spreading.

When to Go Back to Your Healthcare Provider

Warning signs that the pneumonia is getting worse could include:

  • A fever that lasts more than a few days, even with antibiotics

  • Breathing difficulties

  • Signs of infection in other parts of the body, such as a stiff neck, red or swollen joints, or vomiting.

How Long Does Pneumonia Last?

The time it takes for your little one to start feeling better can depend on lots of things, including the type of pneumonia, and how severe the infection is.

Pneumonia can clear up in one or two weeks with proper treatment, although a cough may linger for a few more weeks. Keep in mind, though, that a full recovery from pneumonia can take longer in more severe cases.

Is Pneumonia Contagious?

Although pneumonia itself is not generally contagious, the viruses and bacteria that can cause pneumonia may spread from person to person.

The infection causing pneumonia is sometimes transmitted through coughing and sneezing.

Sharing drinking glasses or utensils is another way of spreading germs, so don’t let anyone—especially other babies or older children—drink from your baby’s sippy cup or bottle, eat from their plate, or use their spoon. Likewise, don’t allow your baby to use other people’s utensils.

It’s a common myth that you can get pneumonia through exposure to cold air, or by not dressing warmly enough, although it is true that infections like this are more common at colder times of the year. The real reason is that children are often indoors and close together during the cooler months of fall, winter, and early spring, which increases the risk of spreading infections.

How to Prevent Pneumonia in Your Baby

You may not be able to completely rule out the possibility of your baby getting pneumonia, but there are plenty of things you can do to lower the risk.

Here are some ways to help prevent your baby from getting pneumonia:

  • Ensure your baby gets the pneumococcus vaccine. Your baby can be vaccinated against pneumococcal infections, which are a common cause of bacterial pneumonia. Experts recommend that all babies below the age of 2 receive this vaccine.

  • Check that your baby has been immunized against high-risk childhood diseases. Many illnesses that can cause viral pneumonia already have routine vaccinations. These include various types of influenza, measles, whooping cough, and chickenpox. This is why it's important to keep up to date with your baby's recommended vaccination schedule. It's also recommended that babies age 6 months and older get the COVID-19 vaccine. Newborns and younger babies won't have had all their shots yet, so take extra care to avoid them coming into contact with people who may be infected with these or any other diseases. The flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccines are recommended for all family members and caregivers.

  • Keep your baby away from people who might be sick. Steer clear of adults or other babies who show signs of any upper respiratory tract infection — for example, if they have a runny or blocked-up nose, a cough, or a sore throat.

  • Make sure all family members and caregivers are washing their hands regularly. An important way of lowering the risk of pneumonia in your baby is to keep up good hygiene habits. Above all, this means washing your hands frequently — and making sure that everyone else in your household does, too — because people often touch their eyes, mouth, and nose without even noticing.

The Bottom Line

Sickness is one of those challenges that you're bound to face from time to time as a parent, but of course it's still natural to worry about what to do if your child gets an illness like pneumonia.

With any luck, knowing a bit more about this condition and how effectively it can be treated will put your mind at ease, and help you recognize the warning signs so that your little one receives treatment as soon as possible.

In most cases, it won't be long before your baby's back to health and you'll be able to get on with enjoying the adventure that is parenthood.

And part of the parenting adventure, of course, is changing diapers. You'll want to choose a well-fitting diaper to keep your baby comfy and to prevent leakages and blowouts.

Our Diaper Size and Weight Chart will help you find the snuggest fitting diaper for your newborn, baby, or toddler. Those diapers could also be earning you points that you’ll be able to turn into savings! Download the Pampers Club app to get started.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

About Christopher B. Peltier

Dr. Chris Peltier is an expert in pediatrics and medical education, and currently practices as a general pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of Mount Carmel, Inc., where he’s served his community for over two decades. Dr. Peltier currently serves as...

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