What Is Viral Pneumonia?

Certain coughs can be serious. Michael Krasowitz/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Viral pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that is caused by a virus. Pneumonia can be caused by many other things as well, including bacteria, fungus or chemicals.

Symptoms You May Expect

Symptoms of viral pneumonia are similar to those of other types of pneumonia, but may be less severe than bacterial pneumonia. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cough (may be productive - meaning you cough up mucus)
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath (which you may only notice when you are climbing stairs or exerting yourself)
  • Pain in the chest or pain when breathing deeply or coughing
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exhaustion or fatigue

Symptoms of viral pneumonia may start like those of the flu - fever, weakness, body aches and a dry cough. Within a few days, it can progress to difficulty breathing, a productive and painful cough and a higher fever. Although the course of the illness will not be the same for everyone, this is common for many people.

What Are the Causes?

Viral pneumonia often develops as a complication of a less serious viral infection, such as a cold, upper respiratory infection or the flu. It is typically less severe than other types of pneumonia and will resolve on its own in 1 to 3 weeks.

Some types of viral pneumonia, specifically those caused by the influenza virus, can be severe and even fatal.

Sometimes the lungs fill with fluid and it can quickly lead to severe shortness of breath or even gasping for air, although it can be difficult to know this is occurring. Those who are at highest risk for this type of viral pneumonia include people with chronic heart and lung problems and pregnant women.

In some cases, a person with viral pneumonia may also develop bacterial pneumonia when bacteria invade the lungs. This occurs because the body is trying to fight off the viral infection and the immune system is not as strong as it would be otherwise.

Treatment Options

Antibiotics are not effective against viral pneumonia - or any other viral infections. Typically, treatment involves managing symptoms and letting the virus run its course. If there is evidence that a person has also developed bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed. Occasionally, doctors may prescribe antiviral medications to treat viral pneumonia.

Things you can do for yourself if you have viral pneumonia include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids. This will help loosen mucus in your lungs so you can cough it up more effectively and keep you hydrated, making it easier for your body to heal.
  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Take over the counter pain relievers or fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or aspirin if needed.
  • Avoid cough medications unless specifically instructed to take them by your doctor. Suppressing a cough when you have pneumonia prevents the mucus in your lungs from being expelled, which can actually make pneumonia worse.

    Possible Complications

    Complications from viral pneumonia, while rare, are possible. Make sure you pay attention to your symptoms and contact your healthcare provider if you feel you are getting worse.

    Possible complications include:

    • Respiratory failure or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS - a severe form of respiratory failure)
    • Sepsis
    • Emphysema  
    • Lung Abscess
    • Death

    These complications are most common in people in high-risk groups like infants, adults over age 65, people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or COPD, and smokers.

    Preventing Viral Pneumonia

    Minimizing your risk for viral infections will reduce the chance that you develop viral pneumonia.

    Getting your flu vaccine every year, using good cold and flu prevention practices, and paying attention to your symptoms will reduce your risk as well.

    If you are at high risk, talk to your health care provider about the pneumonia vaccine and whether or not it is right for you.

    A Word From Verywell

    Pneumonia can be caused by many things. If you are develop symptoms that are similar to those that are listed here, contact your health care provider or seek medical attention to get an accurate diagnosis. Although viral pneumonia often goes away on its own, seeking a proper diagnosis to ensure you get the right treatment is important. 



    Understanding Pneumonia. Lung Disease 2012. American Lung Association. 

    Preventing Pneumonia. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/preventing-pneumonia.html. 

    Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. Lung Disease 2012. American Lung Association. 

    What Is Pneumonia? - NHLBI, NIH. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pnu.