What are Pneumonia Symptoms in Babies?

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Pneumonia is often one of the first things providers check for when little ones arrive to emergency departments, clinics or urgent care settings with breathing difficulties. However, it can be a hard diagnosis to determine. Emily Eady, DO, UnityPoint Health, answers all the top questions about this scary infection.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by viruses or bacteria. Some cases are caused by fungal infections, but that’s less common. 

Certain viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, in the upper respiratory tract can progress to become viral pneumonia when the virus spreads to the lungs. In these cases, someone may start with cold symptoms that seem to worsen or simply not improve.   

Someone with a cold or other viral infection may also have a weakened immune system, which can then put them at risk of developing a bacterial pneumonia while their body is busy fighting another infection. This is a secondary infection on top of the initial infection.

How is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Pneumonia can be diagnosed based on a description of the person’s past symptoms and a clinical exam. A chest X-ray can help with diagnosis but isn’t always needed. There are nose swabs available to diagnose viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, but there is not a good way to get a sample from the lower airways or lungs to determine exactly what type of bacteria is present. 

What are Symptoms of Pneumonia in Babies?

Typically, signs and symptoms of pneumonia include fever and cough. Some kids will also have chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, retractions (using extra muscles below and between the ribs to breathe) or faster breathing. Symptoms of pneumonia in babies also include being more tired than usual, fussy and have difficulty feeding or taking bottles.

Is Pneumonia Contagious to Babies?

Pneumonia can spread from person to person by respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes as well as from direct contact with saliva or mucus from someone who is sick. These infections can be spread from child to child or child to adult and vice versa.   

Pneumonia can be more serious in the very young (infants, especially premature babies) and very old. It is also more likely to impact children with underlying medical conditions associated with their lungs (asthma, cystic fibrosis or chronic lung disease) or immune system (cancer, chemotherapy or immune compromising medications).

The chance a child will develop pneumonia is not at all impacted by how he/she is dressed or air temperature.

What are Pneumonia Treatments for Babies?

Viral pneumonia has no specific treatment except the usual home treatments associated with a virus including rest, extra fluids and fever control. These cases of pneumonia will typically resolve on their own over time.

Bacterial pneumonia does require antibiotics. The infection can be caused by several different bacteria, so providers will tailor pneumonia treatment to the specific person. What works for one person with pneumonia doesn’t always work for another. Antibiotics may be different depending on age range, possible exposures and underlying conditions.

Is There a Pneumonia Vaccine for Babies?

There is a vaccine available to prevent certain bacterial types of pneumonia called pneumococcal infections. This vaccine (PCV13) is given in the regular Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended vaccine schedule starting at two months of age. There is another pneumococcal vaccine (PSV23) available for high-risk children.

Besides getting vaccinated, the best method of pneumonia prevention in babies is keeping them away from anyone who is sick. Anyone who wants to hold your baby should wash their hands, and don’t let anyone hold baby if they aren’t feeling well. It is best to ask people not to kiss your baby, too. If they insist, the back of the head is a great recommendation. Also, all babies over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot.