The symptoms of viral pneumonia are often similar to those of bacterial pneumonia, but, depending on the virus responsible, there may be a few additional symptoms.
Most of the time, viral pneumonia occurs as a complication of viral infections that cause the flu or common cold. In rare cases, viral pneumonia may be life-threatening.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of viral pneumonia.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of viral pneumonia may include fever, shaking, chills, and fatigue.
The symptoms of viral pneumonia may range in severity and can include the following:
- a cough that is likely to be dry initially but may produce yellow or green mucus after 1 to 2 days
- shortness of breath
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- blue tint to lips
Viral pneumonia also presents differently in each age group. Young children with viral pneumonia tend to have mild symptoms that gradually worsen. A child with viral pneumonia may develop noticeable wheezing, and their skin and lips often take on a blue tint from lack of oxygen. They are also likely to lose their appetite.
On the other hand, adults over the age of 65 may experience abnormally low body temperatures, confusion, and dizziness.
Viruses are responsible for viral pneumonia.
These viruses can include the following:
- influenza viruses A and B
- adenoviruses, which cause bronchitis and the common cold
- the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox and shingles
- respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is most serious in young children but can cause cold-like symptoms in people of all ages
Viruses spread easily when affected people sneeze or cough. Coming into contact with a contaminated surface can also transmit the virus.
What are the risk factors?
Viral pneumonia could affect anyone, as the viruses that cause it are very contagious.
However, the following factors may increase a person's risk of developing viral pneumonia:
- being older than 65
- being 2 years old or younger
- living in a group setting, such as a nursing home, prison, or dormitory
- working in a hospital or nursing home
- having a chronic illness, such as a heart, respiratory, or autoimmune disease
- having a compromised immune system, possibly due to cancer or HIV
- recovering from a recent viral infection
Viral pneumonia vs. bacterial pneumonia
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. Doctors classify pneumonia according to its cause. The causes of pneumonia include:
- fungal infections
Bacterial and viral pneumonia are more common than pneumonia resulting from fungal infections.
Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae cause bacterial pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is usually more severe than viral pneumonia.
The symptoms of bacterial pneumonia may include:
- very high fever
- shaking chills, or rigors
- rapid breathing
- shortness of breath
- a cough with blood or mucus
- tiredness or lack of energy
Viral pneumonia may have some of the same symptoms, but the symptoms tend to be less severe.
Bacterial pneumonia requires treatment with antibiotics. Viral pneumonia does not require antibiotics unless it causes a secondary bacterial infection.
A doctor may take a nasal swab to check for viruses.
A doctor will be able to diagnose viral pneumonia.
They will generally begin by asking about any symptoms and carrying out a physical examination. As part of the examination, the doctor will listen to the lungs for any abnormal sounds that may indicate pneumonia.
These sounds may include crackling in the lungs or wheezing while breathing. A doctor will also look for a rapid heart rate and decreased airflow.
If the doctor suspects that pneumonia may be present, they are likely to order some of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:
- chest X-ray
- nasal swab to check for viruses
- sputum culture of the mucus from the lungs
- blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) to look for inflammatory markers
- arterial-blood gas test
The tests that the doctor decides to order will depend on the severity of a person's symptoms and whether or not they are in one of the higher-risk groups.
When to see a doctor
People who have an increased risk of developing pneumonia should see a doctor or visit an emergency room immediately if they develop flu-like symptoms along with any of the following:
- chest pain
- a fever of over 100.4ºF in babies less than 6 months old
- a fever of over 102ºF in older children or adults
- confusion in people over 65 years old
- difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
Pneumonia can be extremely serious in higher-risk individuals. These people will need immediate treatment for the best outcome.
What are the treatment options?
Viral pneumonia usually goes away on its own. Therefore, treatment aims to ease some of the symptoms. A person with viral pneumonia should get plenty of rest and drink extra fluids.
A doctor may prescribe cough medicine to help ease coughing. People should only take cough medicine if and when a doctor instructs them to because coughing helps to clear the infection from the lungs.
In some cases of viral pneumonia, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. This should reduce viral activity and tends to be most effective when the virus is in its early stages.
In rare instances, a doctor may hospitalize a person with viral pneumonia. People aged over 65 or with chronic health conditions are more likely to need hospital care.
A person should wash their hands frequently to reduce the risk of getting sick.
The viruses that cause viral pneumonia are contagious. During the cold and flu season, a person can take steps to stay healthy. These steps may protect against viral pneumonia and other viral illnesses.
Some techniques that people can use to try to prevent getting sick include:
- washing hands frequently with warm water and soap
- getting a flu shot
- avoiding touching the nose or mouth
- getting enough sleep
- eating fresh fruit and vegetables
- keeping a distance from people who are sneezing and coughing
Most people with viral pneumonia recover within 1–2 weeks. Some people may take several weeks to recover fully, especially people who are immunocompromised or adults over the age of 65.
While viral pneumonia is extremely contagious, a person can practice good hygiene and self-care to lower their risk of developing the infection.