Kids Health Info

Pneumonia

  • Pneumonia is inflammation or infection in one or both of the lungs (sometimes called a chest infection). Pneumonia in children can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia.

    Due to the infection, the small airways in the lungs become swollen and make more sticky fluid (mucous). This blocks the airways and reduces the amount of oxygen that is able to get into the body. Pneumonia can affect one part (lobe) of the lung or all of the lung.

    The doctor will determine if your child has pneumonia by asking you questions and examining your child. Blood tests are sometimes helpful to find the likely cause of pneumonia (i.e. bacteria or virus). An X-ray of your child's chest can confirm the diagnosis. If your child has pneumonia the X-ray will show fluid (consolidation) in the lungs.

    Pneumonia often comes after a respiratory infection, such as a cold or flu. Most children with pneumonia get better quite quickly and completely.

    Signs and symptoms

    Signs and symptons of pneumonia vary depending on your child's age and the cause of the pneumonia.

    Children often have one or more of the following:

    • high fever;
    • fast and/or difficult breathing - your child's breathing will become hard work and you can often see the ribs 'sucking in' when they are breathing;
    • cough;
    • vomiting;
    • be irritable or more tired than usual;
    • pain in the chest, especially when coughing;
    • tummy (abdominal) aches or pain.

    Most children refuse to eat. This is often concerning for parents but remember that your child will begin to eat again once they feel better. It is important to give your child fluids to prevent dehydration.  Offer small sips of water and offer babies the breast or bottle more often.

    Treatment at home

    Most children with pneumonia are able to be treated at home.

    • They will need a lot of rest.
    • They need to drink small amounts of fluids often so they do not get dehydrated.
    • They may be more comfortable sleeping propped up on a couple of pillows, rather than laying completely flat.
    • If your child has chest pains they may need some pain relief, such as paracetamol (e.g. Panadol).
    • Do not give cough medicines. They do not help children with pneumonia.
    • Smoking around your child should be avoided at all times.

    Bacterial Pneumonia - If your child's pneumonia is caused by bacteria they will be given an antibiotic medicine to take. Children with bacterial pneumonia usually improve a lot within 24 to 48 hours of starting antibiotics. Their fever will come down, they will have more energy and their breathing will become easier. They may however continue to cough for days to weeks. It is very important to complete the whole course of antibiotics, even if your child seems remarkably better. Treatment will continue for seven to 10 days.

    Viral pneumonia - Antibiotics do not cure viruses and are not given for viral pneumonia. Recovery is usually slower, over two to four weeks.

    Treatment in hospital

    Some children with pneumonia need to be admitted to hospital. This is usually if they:

    • are less than one year old;
    • are not able to take medicine by mouth;
    • have become dehydrated;
    • have severe breathing problems.

    While in hospital your child will be watched closely and the following treatments may be necessary:

    • Antibiotics might be given directly into a vein through a drip (intravenous or IV). These will only be given if the pneumonia is thought to be bacterial.
    • Some children may need oxygen to help them to breathe more easily.
    • Children who are dehydrated will need to be given fluids by a drip (intravenous or IV therapy).

    When to come back

    You should contact a doctor if your child is being treated for pneumonia and:

    • their breathing becomes more difficult;
    • they become more drowsy or sleepy, or are hard to wake;
    • they are continuing to vomit and are unable to drink much;
    • you are worried about your child at any stage during the illness or you have other questions.

    Some children need to be checked after a few days. Your doctor will tell you when to come back.

    About six weeks after the illness your child will need to see a doctor to make sure that they have had a complete recovery.

    Prevention

    • Keep your child up to date with their immunisations. Yearly flu shots may be beneficial in some children.  Your family doctor can give you more advice about flu shots. 
    • Teach primary school aged children not to share eating or drinking utensils, toys and food or drinks with other children. This is difficult to do in young children, especially in créche, childcare or kindergarten, as they often put shared toys in their mouth.  Immunised children will have a much smaller risk of becoming infected with pneumonia in these instances.
    • Teach children to wash their hands after coughing or sneezing to prevent the spread of germs.

    Key points to remember

    • Most children with pneumonia recover quite quickly and completely.
    • If your child has pneumonia they will need to rest and drink small amounts of fluid often.
    • Cough medicines do not help children with pneumonia.
    • It is very important to complete the course of antibiotics if they have been prescribed.

     

    Developed by the RCH department of General Medicine and Respiratory Medicine. First published 2003.  Last review November 2010.

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Disclaimer 
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.