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What To Know About Viral Pneumonia


Viral pneumonia is inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the lungs due to infection with a virus.


Viral pneumonia is more likely to occur in young children and older adults. This is because their bodies have a harder time fighting off the virus than people with a strong immune system.

Viral pneumonia is most often caused by one of the following viruses:

•Respiratory syncytial virus

Serious viral pneumonia is more likely to happen in those with a weakened immune system, such as:

•Babies who are born prematurely
•Children with heart or lung problems
•People who are infected with HIV
•People who have had an organ transplant
•People receiving chemotherapy for cancer, or other medications that weaken the immune system


Symptoms of viral pneumonia often begin slowly and may not be severe at first.

The most common symptoms of pneumonia are:

•Cough (some people cough up mucus, or even bloody mucus)
•Fever, which may be mild or high
•Shaking chills
•Shortness of breath

Other symptoms include:

•Confusion, especially in older people
•Excessive sweating and clammy skin
•Loss of appetite, low energy, and fatigue
•Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough


The doctor will perform a physical exam. If the doctor thinks you have pneumonia, you will also have a chest x-ray. This is because the physical exam may not be able to differentiate between pneumonia and acute bronchitis or other respiratory infections.

Depending on how severe your symptoms are, other tests may be done, including:

•Complete blood count (CBC)
•CT scan of the chest
•Blood cultures
•Bronchoscopy (rarely needed)
•Nasal swab test to check for viruses such as the flu
•Open lung biopsy (only done in very serious illnesses when the diagnosis cannot be made from other sources)
•Sputum culture


Antibiotics do not treat viral pneumonia. Antiviral medication only works against influenza pneumonia and some pneumonias caused by the herpes family of viruses. Antiviral drugs may be tried, especially if the infection is caught early.

Treatment may also include:

•Corticosteroid medicines
•Increased fluids
•Use of humidified air

A hospital stay may be needed to prevent dehydration and to help with breathing if the infection is serious.

People are more likely to be admitted to the hospital if they:

•Are older than 65 years or are children
•Are unable to care for themselves at home, eat, or drink
•Have another serious medical problem, such as a heart or kidney problem
•Have been taking antibiotics at home and are not getting better
•Have severe symptoms

However, many people can be treated at home. You can take these steps at home:

•Control your fever with aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen), or acetaminophen. Do not give aspirin to children.
•Do not take cough medicines without first talking to your doctor. Cough medicines may make it harder for your body to cough up sputum.
•Drink plenty of fluids to help loosen secretions and bring up phlegm.
•Get a lot of rest. Have someone else do chores.


Most cases of viral pneumonia are mild and get better without treatment within 1 to 3 weeks. Some cases are more serious and require a hospital stay.

Possible Complications

More serious infections can result in respiratory failure, liver failure, and heart failure. Sometimes, bacterial infections occur during or just after viral pneumonia, which may lead to more serious forms of pneumonia.

When to Seek Medical Help

Call your doctor if symptoms of viral pneumonia develop or your condition gets worse after starting to improve.


  • Wash your hands often, especially after blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, diapering a baby, and before eating or preparing food.
  • Do not smoke. Tobacco damages your lungs’ ability to ward off infection.
  • Vaccines may help prevent pneumonia in children, the elderly, and people with diabetes, asthma, emphysema, HIV, cancer, or other chronic conditions.
  • A drug called palivizumab (Synagis) is given to some children under 24 months old to prevent pneumonia caused by respiratory syncytial virus.
  • Flu vaccine prevents pneumonia and other problems caused by the influenza virus. It must be given each year to protect against new virus strains.
  • If your immune system is weak, stay away from crowds.