Pneumonia factsheet

Introduction

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by a virus or bacteria. Tiny air sacs in the lung’s called alveoli are normally filled with air. In pneumonia, the alveoli fill up with mucus and pus. This makes it difficult for your child to breathe and reduces the amount of oxygen that can get into the body.

Pneumonia can happen in one or both lungs and can be serious if left untreated.

 Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of pneumonia in children may look different depending on how old they are, and what caused the infection.

Generally, children will show symptoms including:

  • high fever
  • difficult breathing with physical signs
    • nostrils flaring
    • head bobbing
    • skin appearing to suck in around the ribs and neck
  • sharp chest pains
  • a wet sounding cough
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • irritability and tiredness.

Some babies may have fever, general illness symptoms and rapid breathing without a cough.

See your local doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has pneumonia.

Diagnosis

Your child’s doctor will do an examination for pneumonia which will check:

  • how they look physically
  • how they are breathing
  • temperature
  • blood pressure
  • their pulse rate.

They will also listen to the lungs with a stethoscope and may order a chest x-ray to check whether there is fluid in the alveoli.

Treatment

Pneumonia is treated differently depending on whether it has been caused by a virus or bacteria. Generally, children can be treated at home with lots of rest and smaller, more frequent amounts of fluid. Avoid giving your child cough medicine as it can stop mucus from being cleared out of the lungs properly.

Call your local doctor, or present to your nearest emergency department if your child has the following symptoms during treatment for pneumonia:

  • symptoms are getting worse
  • dehydration
  • trouble breathing
  • high fever that will not go down.

Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonia can take around four weeks to clear up, with a cough that can remain for a while afterwards. No medication is usually needed to treat viral pneumonia, but your doctor may recommend paracetamol to lower fever and relieve aches and pains.

Antibiotics do not work on viral pneumonia and will not be prescribed.

Bacterial pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is treated by antibiotics. In mild cases, your child will be given antibiotics they can take by mouth at home. Bacterial pneumonia should start to clear after 5 days of treatment with antibiotics. It is very important that your child takes their antibiotics every day until the packet is empty, even if they start to feel better.

In more serious cases of pneumonia, your child may need to be admitted to hospital to have antibiotics, fluids, and other medicine to improve their breathing. These will be given through an intravenous (IV) cannula inserted into their vein.

Your child may be admitted to hospital for treatment if they:

  • are severely ill
  • are very young
  • are unable to take medication by mouth
  • have other existing illnesses or conditions.

 Management

Immunisation and pneumonia

Keeping your child up to date with their immunisations can help lower the chance of getting pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccine is included in the National Immunisation Schedule at 2, 4 and 12 months. Children who are at higher risk are also eligible for extra doses of the vaccine.

Other vaccines included in the schedule that can help to prevent illnesses that lead to pneumonia include:

Always speak to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about immunisation.

Preventing pneumonia

Good hygiene, especially when sick, can help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. This helps to lower the chance of developing pneumonia.

Here are some things you and your family can do to lower the risk of pneumonia:

  • wash hands regularly, with soap
  • cover your mouth with a tissue, or the inner elbow when coughing and sneezing
  • stay at home, or wear a mask in public when sick
  • do not smoke around your child, or in areas where they are likely to be - for example, the house, car, backyard, or balcony.
Last updated Wednesday 13th December 2023

Disclaimer

This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024


This factsheet was produced with support from John Hunter Children's Hospital.