Pneumonia Symptoms in Children

Symptoms of Childhood Illnesses

A chest xray usually isn't needed to diagnose pneumonia.
Recognizing symptoms of pneumonia are often all that is needed to make a diagnosis, not an xray. istockphoto

Pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused by either a virus or bacteria, such as:

  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • flu
  • human metapneumovirus (hMPV)
  • coronavirus
  • parainfluenza virus
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae

While some bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics and even prevented with vaccines, there are no treatments for most viral causes of pneumonia.

Although pneumonia is the largest cause of death in children worldwide, because of the wide use of vaccines, ready access to health care, and availability of antibiotics when needed, pneumonia is much less likely to be life-threatening in developed countries.

It is still important to learn to be able to recognize symptoms of pneumonia, though, both so that you don't rush to your pediatrician every time your child just has a cold and so that they do get medical attention if they have pneumonia.

Pneumonia Symptoms

After having symptoms of a mild upper respiratory tract infection, such as a runny nose and mild cough, children who develop pneumonia (a lower respiratory tract infection) may worsen suddenly and develop other symptoms and signs, including:

  • worsening cough
  • fever
  • increased respiratory rate (tachypnea)
  • wheezing (usually a sign of viral pneumonia)
  • decreased breath sounds
  • crackles
  • chest pain
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting

How do you know if your child is breathing fast or has an increased respiratory rate?

The World Health Organization defines tachypnea as a respiratory rate of more than 50 breaths per minute for infants two to twelve months of age, more than 40 breaths per minute for children one to five years of age, and more than 30 breaths per minute for children over age five.

Although often not necessary to diagnose pneumonia, a chest x-ray would show an infiltrate in the lungs if your child has pneumonia.

Red Flag Pneumonia Symptoms

Certain red flag pneumonia symptoms might indicate that your child needs quick medical attention, including:

  • rapid breathing
  • shortness of breath

Children with these types of more serious pneumonia symptoms typically need to be hospitalized.

What To Know About Pneumonia Symptoms

Other things to know about pneumonia and pneumonia symptoms include that:

  • Some types of pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines, including Prevnar, Pneumovax, Hib, and the flu vaccine.
  • A fever can sometimes cause a temporarily increased respiratory rate, but your child's breathing should return to normal as you get her fever under control.
  • Community-acquired pneumonia is a general term for someone who develops pneumonia and is not already hospitalized.
  • Walking pneumonia is often caused by the Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria and includes mild pneumonia symptoms in school-age children, teens, and young adults.

And​, of course, remember that not every cough is pneumonia. A child's cough can be caused by asthma, bronchitis, allergies, reflux, and a host of other infectious and non-infectious things.

Sources:

Gereige Rani S. Pediatrics in Review Vol.34 No.10 October 2013

Lichenstein R. Pediatric pneumonia. - Emerg Med Clin North Am - 01-MAY-2003; 21(2): 437-51

Sandora TJ. Pneumonia in hospitalized children. Pediatr Clin North Am - 01-AUG-2005; 52(4): 1059-81, viii

Van den Bruel A. Diagnostic value of clinical features at presentation to identify serious infection in children in developed countries: a systematic review. Lancet. 2010 Mar 6;375(9717):834-45.

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