Pneumonia is a lung infection. When someone has pneumonia, the small airways in their lungs get clogged with mucus. This reduces the amount of oxygen that can get into their body.
Pneumonia can involve one or both of the lungs.
Pneumonia can be caused by a virus or bacteria. In babies and children younger than five years, pneumonia is more likely to be caused by a virus. In children older than five years, pneumonia is more likely to be caused by bacteria.
A child with pneumonia might:
- have a moist cough
- have a fever
- be short of breath or have difficulty breathing
- complain of sharp chest pains when they breathe deeply or cough
- have a stomach ache and/or vomit
- be irritable or tired
- lose their appetite and not want to drink.
A younger baby with pneumonia might just look very ill, have a fever, and breathe rapidly, without coughing or showing the other symptoms above.
Does my child need to see a doctor about pneumonia?
You should take your child to see your GP if your child:
- has a cough and fever
- has difficulty breathing – you might see the ribs or skin under the neck sucking in, flaring nostrils or a bobbing head
- is vomiting and not able to drink much
- has stomach pain or chest pain, especially when coughing.
If your younger baby is listless and breathing rapidly, you should take your baby to the GP, especially if your baby is under five months old.
You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn’t seem well. If your child has significant shortness of breath, your child’s skin or lips are pale or blue, or your child is drowsy or hard to wake up, call 000 for an ambulance.
Tests for pneumonia
Your GP can usually say whether your child has pneumonia by checking your child’s symptoms and examining your child.
Your GP might send your child for a chest X-ray. This will show clearly whether your child has pneumonia.
Blood tests can sometimes help doctors to work out whether your child’s pneumonia is caused by a virus or bacteria.
You can treat most children with mild pneumonia at home.
It’s very important to make sure your child is drinking enough so they don’t get dehydrated:
- For breastfed babies younger than six months, offer feeds more often.
- For formula-fed babies younger than six months, offer the usual amount of formula. Offer smaller but more frequent feeds.
- For breastfed babies older than six months, offer feeds more often. You can also offer water between feeds.
- For formula-fed babies older than six months, offer the usual amount of formula. Offer smaller but more frequent feeds. You can also offer water between feeds.
- For children older than one year, offer your child water or an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte® or Hydralyte™. You can buy oral rehydration fluid from pharmacies and many supermarkets. You might need to give your child smaller amounts of water or oral rehydration fluid more frequently, especially if your child is really unwell and has been vomiting. For example, you might need to offer a few mouthfuls every 15 minutes.
Here are some other things you can do to make sure your child is comfortable:
- Give your child paracetamol according to directions if your child has a fever and is uncomfortable. Or you could give ibuprofen if your child is older than three months and isn’t dehydrated.
- Make that your child gets as much rest as possible.
- Keep your home smoke free. Smoke can make pneumonia worse.
- Don’t worry if your child has a fever and isn’t hungry. Your child’s appetite will improve as your child starts to feel better.
If your child’s pneumonia is caused by bacteria, the doctor might prescribe antibiotics, which your child will need to take for a week or longer. It’s important to complete the entire course of antibiotics. Your doctor might change the antibiotics if your child’s symptoms haven’t improved after 48 hours.
If your child is very ill or is less than six months old, your child will probably need to go to hospital for special treatment. If the pneumonia is bacterial, your child will have antibiotics through a drip into a vein in their arm. Some children also need oxygen to ease their breathing. Your child might also get extra fluids through a drip.
Don’t give children aspirin. Aspirin is associated with Reye’s syndrome, which is a rare but serious illness.
Recovery from pneumonia
Children with bacterial pneumonia usually improve within 48 hours of starting appropriate antibiotics.
Recovery from viral pneumonia might be slower. Your child’s cough might last for up to three weeks after your child has recovered from other symptoms like fever. But the cough isn’t a concern if your child is otherwise getting better.
Prevention of pneumonia
Your child and family can take some simple precautions to prevent the spread of the viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia and reduce your chances of getting sick.
- Make sure you regularly wash hands with warm, soapy water.
- Keep your hands away from your face as much as possible.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbows.
Influenza immunisation might reduce the chance of your child getting pneumonia caused by an influenza virus. It’s recommended that all children over six months be immunised against the flu every year.
Pneumococcal disease is one of the most common causes of bacterial pneumonia in children. Children are immunised against pneumococcal disease as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP).
Talk to your GP for more information about getting your child immunised.