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Signs and symptoms of pneumonia in toddlers
Pneumonia can strike anytime, but it usually shows up in winter and spring, often after a cold or other upper respiratory infection.
Cough and fever are two of pneumonia's main symptoms.
Other symptoms can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain
- Trouble breathing or fast, labored breathing
- Bluish or gray color of skin, lips, or fingernails
Because your child may not be able to express to you what is bothering her, also look for signs such as paleness, loss of energy, and more crying than usual.
Is pneumonia dangerous for toddlers?
It can be. Some pneumonia cases are mild, but they can also be severe.
Call your doctor right away if you suspect your child has pneumonia, especially if she has a fever of over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit in babies under 6 months old), or if she has fast or labored breathing.
Call 911 if your child is taking more than 60 breaths per minute, or turning blue around the mouth.
Are some children more at risk for getting pneumonia?
Yes. Pneumonia is more common in:
- Preterm babies
- Children with asthma
- Children with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems
- Young children who are around second-hand smoke
What causes pneumonia in children?
Pneumonia is a general term for infection of the lungs. It can be caused by many different types of bacteria and viruses. (Sometimes, pneumonia can also be caused by fungi.)
Young children may get pneumonia from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), for example, and infants may get it from group B streptococcus (GBS) acquired at birth, during delivery. An older child might develop pneumonia as the result of other bacterial or viral infections.
Children with bacterial pneumonia usually have sudden symptoms – high fever, rapid breathing, and coughing. They don't want to eat and seem very ill.
They may have trouble breathing (look for flaring nostrils or chest sinking in as they breathe), a faster pulse, and bluish lips or nails. They may seem weak, vomit, or have diarrhea. Less common symptoms include abdominal pain and a stiff neck.
Streptococcus pneumoniae is the usual cause, but other bacteria (such as Staphylococcus aureus or Mycoplasma pneumoniae) can cause pneumonia, too.
This type of pneumonia typically starts out like a cold, but symptoms slowly and steadily get worse. Children may have a fever of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit or more, with a worsening cough, wheezing, and rapid breathing. Weakness, vomiting, or diarrhea can also be a symptom.
Viral pneumonia is usually less severe than bacterial and can't progress into it – but it can make kids more susceptible to getting the bacterial form of the illness.
Viruses behind pneumonia include:
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Parainfluenza virus
- The flu virus
- Human metapneumovirus (HMPV)
How is pneumonia diagnosed in children?
During an office exam, the doctor:
- Watches how the child breathes
- Listens to her lungs with a stethoscope
The doctor listens for diminished breathing sounds or other abnormal noise. Because some of the air sacs in the lungs are filled with fluid in a child with pneumonia, she'll be breathing rapidly to take in more oxygen.
If the doctor thinks your child has pneumonia, he may:
- Order a chest X-ray
- Request blood work
- Swab your child's nose to check for viruses such as RSV or influenza
- Use a pulse oximeter to make sure your child is getting enough oxygen. An oximeter is a simple device that clips on to a finger to measure oxygen saturation.
What's the treatment for pneumonia in children?
Treatment for pneumonia depends on the type of infection your child has.
For bacterial pneumonia:
- Doctors prescribe antibiotics.
- If your child needs to be treated for bacterial pneumonia in the hospital, she may be given fluids and antibiotics through an IV. The nurses may suction her nose regularly and keep an eye on her blood oxygen levels with an oximeter. She may also be fitted with a nasal oxygen tube or mask to make breathing easier.
For viral pneumonia:
- Treatment may be limited to rest and fluids because viral pneumonia doesn't respond to antibiotics.
Home treatment for pneumonia in children
While you should always consult a doctor if you suspect your child has pneumonia, there are steps you can take to help your child recover, including:
- Keep your child hydrated. Getting enough fluids is vital to fight the dehydration from rapid breathing and fever that's often a side effect of pneumonia.
- Run a cool mist humidifier to help clear your child’s lungs and make it easier to breathe.
- Provide pain relief. If she's feverish and uncomfortable, you may want to give her the proper dose of acetaminophen or (if she's 6 months or older) ibuprofen. (Cough suppressants are not recommended because coughing helps to clear the secretions of mucus caused by the infection.)
How long does it take a toddler to recover from pneumonia?
Most uncomplicated pneumonia gets better within a week, although the cough can last for weeks. It is safe for your child to go outside while she is recovering.
If your child was given an antibiotic for bacterial pneumonia, continue giving it to her for the full course of treatment. Even if she starts getting better within a few days, the infection could return if the full course of antibiotic treatment isn’t completed.
What can I do to prevent my child from getting pneumonia?
To boost your child's chance of staying pneumonia-free:
Keep vaccinations up to date. The Hib, DTaP, MMR, flu (for children at least 6 months old), chicken pox, and pneumococcal vaccines can all help prevent pneumonia. Ask the doctor for advice if your child has missed any shots. See our complete article on recommended vaccinations.
Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands and your child's hands often to prevent the spread of germs. Don't let your child share cups or utensils. Regularly wash all the places germy body parts might touch, like the phone, toys, doorknobs, and the refrigerator door handle.
Make yours a smoke-free home. If you or your partner smokes, do it outside and ask guests to do the same. Better yet, ask your doctor about finding a program to help you quit. Studies have shown that children who live around cigarette smoke, even for short periods, get sick more often and are more susceptible to pneumonia, upper respiratory infections, asthma, and ear infections.