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Walking Pneumonia in Children

What is walking pneumonia in children?

Walking pneumonia is a type of lung infection. It is a mild form of pneumonia that can be life-threatening for some people. Children with walking pneumonia may feel very tired and run down. But they may still be able to do many of their normal daily activities. The illness is rare in children younger than 5 years old.

What causes walking pneumonia in a child?

Viruses or bacteria can cause walking pneumonia. The most common cause of the illness in school-aged children is the bacteria M. pneumoniae (Mycoplasma pneumoniae). It also causes bronchitis and chest colds.

M. pneumoniae can spread easily among children. That is especially true when they are in close contact with one another, such as in the same household, at school, or at a camp. The germ can spread through airborne droplets from sneezing, coughing, or talking. It is most often spread in the fall and winter.

What are the symptoms of walking pneumonia in a child?

Children with walking pneumonia may have these symptoms:

  • Fever, often low grade

  • Severe tiredness (fatigue)

  • Headache

  • Skin rash

  • General feeling of sickness

  • Cough, dry to phlegmy

  • Ear infections

  • Croup

  • Sinus infection

  • Sore throat

  • Wheezing in children who have an airway problem, such as asthma

These symptoms may appear anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks after exposure to the viruses or bacteria. They may last from a week to a month.

How is walking pneumonia diagnosed in a child?

Your child’s healthcare provider can often diagnose walking pneumonia with a physical exam of your child. They will ask about your child’s symptoms. Your child will also need a chest X-ray. Your child may also need other tests, such as blood tests. But they often aren’t needed.

How is walking pneumonia treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment also depends on the cause of the illness. Your child will have to take antibiotics if the infection is from the bacteria M. pneumoniae. If the illness is from a virus, then antibiotics won’t work. The illness will have to run its course.

To help your child recover more quickly, make sure they:

  • Relax. Plenty of rest gives your child a boost in fighting the infection. Your child’s healthcare provider may advise that your child stay home from school until symptoms get better.

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, soups, and warm tea can help prevent fluid loss (dehydration).

  • Take prescribed medicines. Your child’s healthcare provider may advise over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to ease symptoms, such as fever or pain. Always discuss OTC medicines with your child's provider before giving them to your child, especially the first time. Sometimes a nebulizer may be prescribed if your child is wheezing.

You can also use a cool-mist humidifier in their bedroom to help with breathing problems.

What are possible complications of walking pneumonia in a child?

Walking pneumonia is often a mild illness. But it can get worse. Complications of the illness include:

  • More serious pneumonia

  • Asthma attacks or new asthma symptoms

  • Swelling in the brain (encephalitis)

  • Hemolytic anemia

  • Kidney problems

  • Skin disorders

How can I help prevent walking pneumonia in my child?

Some types of pneumonia can be prevented with a vaccine. But no vaccine is available for an infection caused by the bacteria M. pneumoniae.

You can help your child prevent walking pneumonia with good hygiene. Teach your child to cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Your child should also wash their hands often. These measures can help prevent other infections, too.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your child’s healthcare provider if your child’s symptoms get worse or don't improve. Or if they have:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • High fever

Call 911 if your child has:

  • Severe trouble breathing

  • Lips, nails, or skin that are blue or gray

  • Drawing in of the skin around the ribs (retractions)

Key points about walking pneumonia in children

  • Walking pneumonia is a type of lung infection. It is a mild type of pneumonia.

  • Children with this illness may feel very tired and run down. But they may still be able to do many of their normal daily activities.

  • The most common cause of walking pneumonia in school-aged children is the bacteria M. pneumoniae. It can be spread easily among children through sneezing, coughing, or talking.

  • Antibiotics can treat walking pneumonia if it is caused by the germ M. pneumoniae.

  • Correct handwashing can help stop the illness from spreading.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s healthcare provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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