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Someone checking to see if they have a fever.

What Is the Difference Between Viral and Bacterial Pneumonia?

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation of the alveoli (air sacs). Lungs bring in air, move oxygen into your blood, and remove carbon dioxide. For the lungs to be able to perform at their best, the airways within the lungs need to be free from obstructions.

The infection causes swelling, which causes liquid and mucus to flood the lungs. The lung’s alveoli, which are essential for air exchange, become filled with pus, mucus, and fluid. This blocks air from freely moving through the lungs and traps the mucus, pus, and liquid inside the lungs. Having fluid-filled lungs causes a person to cough and have problems breathing. A person with this infection may feel as if they have to exert a large amount of effort just to breathe.

The CDC states about 250,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized due to pneumonia each year. Tragically, there are also 50,000 deaths each year that can be attributed directly to the infection. Although most people who are hospitalized for the illness in the U.S. are adults, it is the most common cause for children to be admitted to a hospital. Worldwide, pneumonia is the primary cause of death from infections for children five years old and younger.

What Are the Symptoms?

Pneumonia cases can vary. Sometimes the infection may have symptoms so mild that people may not know they have it, and recover without needing medical attention. Other cases are so severe they may require immediate hospitalization.

A few symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Productive coughing
  • Yellow, greenish, or bloody phlegm/mucus
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Quick, shallow, fast breathing
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that hurts on intake of breath or coughing
  • Malaise of fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

In addition to the above symptoms, children and seniors can exhibit:

  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in small children
  • Dehydration
  • Poor appetite in seniors and older children
  • Poor feeding in infants
  • Restlessness in infants
  • Pain in the abdomen due to excessive coughing and difficulty breathing
  • Confusion, especially in the senior population
  • Whooping cough (pertussis), may have coughing spells with the classic ”whooping” sound

Symptoms of Bacterial Pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is the most common form of pneumonia and also tends to be the most serious. The onset can be gradual or sudden. Severe sweating and a high fever (usually greater than 100 degrees F) can occur. Lips and nail beds obtain a bluish tint due to the lack of oxygen. Breathing can become rapid, and the heart rate quickens. A person infected with bacterial pneumonia can also become disoriented and confused.

Symptoms of Viral Pneumonia

Unlike bacterial pneumonia's relatively quick onset, viral pneumonia tends to develop over several days. Early signs of viral pneumonia often mimic the flu: dry cough, weakness, fatigue, fever, and muscle pain. However, the symptoms become worse after a day or two. Coughing and fever increases, and a person’s lips may turn blue because of the lack of oxygen.

Diagnosis and Treatment

It’s important to seek medical assistance right away if this illness is suspected, especially with young children and seniors. Pneumonia is diagnosed through a physical exam by a healthcare professional. This includes an assessment of lungs with a stethoscope, a pulse oximetry to check oxygen levels, and a chest X-ray may be done. Lab tests may also be conducted on mucus samples to verify what type of the infection is present (viral versus bacterial). Knowing the type of pneumonia can help medical staff target the treatments more efficiently.

Not all cases of the illness require hospitalization. For many cases, home care and bed rest is adequate treatment. For all types of the infection, breathing therapies and exercises may be used to help the lungs recover and loosen any mucus. Medications to lower fever, address swelling, and decrease pain may also be used as treatments.

Antibiotics are the primary treatment intervention for bacterial pneumonia. Antibiotics are not used as a treatment for viral pneumonia. However, there are times when an antibiotic may be prescribed, not for the virus causing the pneumonia, but for a bacterial infection that is present at the same time. There are no treatments used to target viral pneumonia.

In cases where the flu virus is the cause of a case of pneumonia, an antiviral drug can be prescribed to help alleviate the severity of the illness.

How to Prevent the Infection

The CDC encourages vaccinations for some of the bacteria and viruses that most commonly cause pneumonia. By preventing initial infection, chances of developing pneumonia can be significantly decreased.

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • Influenza (flu)
  • Measles
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Pneumococcal
  • Varicella (chickenpox)

Other healthy practices that can prevent pneumonia are routinely washing your hands, cleaning surfaces that are handled often (doorknobs, faucets), and coughing or sneezing into elbows and sleeves (not into hands). These efforts are not only simple, but effective, too. Public areas that are touched frequently can often harbor bacteria and viruses that make people sick.

By washing hands and cleaning surfaces, everyone can do their part to keep pneumonia from occurring.

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