Pneumonia - signs and symptoms to look out for

Baby exam with doctor

The word “pneumonia” is enough to strike fear into the hearts of most parents. It certainly can be serious and, if you think your baby is suffering from it, then you should get them to a doctor or A&E immediately. However, bear in mind that many babies develop it and the vast majority make a full recovery. Here's our guide to what to look out for and what to do if you think your baby might have pneumonia.

What is pneumonia?
How can I prevent my baby from getting pneumonia?
Is pneumonia life-threatening?
How does a baby get pneumonia?
What are the symptoms of pneumonia in babies?
How is pneumonia in babies treated?
What Mumsnetters say about pneumonia

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a dangerous inflammation of the tissue in the lungs. It's usually caused by bacteria but can be caused by virus, too. The inflamed air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. It affects people of all ages but is particularly common among babies and the elderly. People with weakened immune systems or pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, are also at increased risk. Like other chest infections, pneumonia is more common in the autumn and winter months. It can develop quickly and could require urgent medical attention.

You shouldn't take any chances with pneumonia. So if you think your child might be suffering from it, put aside any concerns about overreacting and get her to a doctor. If mild, pneumonia can be treated at home, but the doctors will be able to tell you what's best. Some cases can be treated by a GP while others will require a trip to hospital. If you can’t get an immediate appointment with your GP, take your baby to A&E. Where pneumonia is concerned it's always a case of “better safe than sorry”.

How can I prevent my baby from getting pneumonia?

The pneumococcal vaccine (“pneumo jab” or “pneumonia vaccine”) is given to babies as three jabs at eight weeks, sixteen weeks and 12 months. It protects your baby against pneumonia and other pneumococcal infections. Vaccinations are the best way to reduce the risk of your baby picking up these childhood diseases and infections.

Practising good hygiene by using tissues when you sneeze, regularly washing hands with antibacterial hand gel and keeping your baby clean, too, will also help.

A smoke-free home and keeping your baby in smoke-free environments as much as you can when you're out and about will also reduce the risk. So if you or your partner smokes then now is the time to try to stop.

When my daughter had pneumonia, the thing that made me realise something was wrong was her rapid breathing (60 breaths per minute) and her loss of appetite. She was totally off her food, only eating two spoonfuls of yogurt a day.

Is pneumonia contagious?

In short, no. The germs and bacteria which cause pneumonia are contagious, but they’re the same ones that cause colds and flu and, in the vast majority of cases, that’s all most people catch. Only rarely does pneumonia develop as a result.

Is pneumonia life-threatening?

It can be, sadly, but most babies who develop it will be fine with treatment. The danger is down to the fact that the inflammation of the air sacs reduces the amount of oxygen getting through to your baby. If the inflammation is severe then that can stop vital organs, such as the heart and brain, from getting enough oxygen, which is very serious.

Pneumonia is at its most dangerous when it goes untreated. It’s not an uncommon condition and doctors will be able to determine whether or not your baby has it, which type she’s suffering from and which treatment will be effective. So always see a doctor if you have concerns.

If your child does turn out to have pneumonia, above all, don't panic – many Mumsnetters have seen their children suffer from pneumonia, go through treatment and make a full recovery.

How does a baby get pneumonia?

It’s most commonly caused by bacterial infection. The technical term is “pneumococcal infection”, which is caused by the bacteria streptococcus pneumonia. Other types of pneumonia include:

  • Viral pneumonia. This is usually caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) which also causes bronchiolitis.
  • Aspiration pneumonia. This often comes from breathing in a harmful substance – chemicals or smoke – or objects.
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia. People in intensive care, on breathing machines, are especially at risk of catching pneumonia, usually by bacterial infection. It’s rare, though, so don’t let it put you off taking your baby to hospital.
Baby lying on back

What are the symptoms of pneumonia in babies?

It can develop over a couple of days but, in some cases, it can take longer to become apparent. Take your baby to your GP if she’s suffering from any of the following symptoms:

  • Coughing and bringing up mucus.
  • Fever, including sweats and shivers.
  • Generally unwell and rundown with cold and flu-like symptoms.
  • Loss of appetite

But how do you know it isn’t just a nasty cold? If your baby develops the following symptoms, on top of those mentioned above, you should take her to A&E:

  • Breathing difficulties, low and shallow breaths at rate of 50 or more per minute, and sucking in of the chest.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Blue or grey lips.
  • Low fluid intake, down to half her usual intake for a day or more.
My son had pneumonia recently. IV antibiotics did the trick in terms of clearing it up when he was in hospital. At home, we found ibuprofen, rather than paracetamol, was the only thing that brought his temperature down.

How is pneumonia treated?

Your doctor will listen to your baby’s chest through a stethoscope to find out how badly her lungs are affected. If she is found to be suffering from mild pneumonia then the doctor might:

  • Give your baby an x-ray to decide which type of pneumonia she’s suffering from.
  • Give your baby a course of antibiotics, if it is bacterial.
  • Suggest waiting and allowing your baby’s immune system to fight the virus alone, if it is viral. This might not feel so reassuring as having a prescription but the symptoms should soon start to clear.

If your baby requires hospital treatment then doctors will:

  • Make sure she’s getting enough fluid, possibly through a drip.
  • Ensure she’s getting enough oxygen, possibly through a ventilator mask.
  • Give her antibiotics if the illness is caused by bacterial infection. It is very important that your baby completes her course of antibiotics.

Most cases, even the severe ones, are out of hospital within a week, and children often take two weeks to make a full recovery from pneumonia. It can go on longer so, although symptoms should ease off gradually, don’t be surprised if your child is still coughing for up to four weeks. If symptoms do not clear then take your baby back to the doctor.

While your baby is recovering:

  • Let her rest.
  • Keep her hydrated with breast and bottle feeds.
  • Give her water if she’s started weaning.
  • Give her infant paracetamol if she’s older than two months. This should reduce her temperature and ease her cough. If she’s older than six months then you can give her baby ibuprofen. Check the packaging for instructions on dosage or discuss with the pharmacist.

What Mumsnetters say about pneumonia

“My son had bacterial pneumonia when he was eight months old and he was very unwell. He was feeding but vomiting straight away and his cry sounded weak.”

“My daughter had pneumonia three times. On each occasion she had IV antibiotics and nebulisers. The first time she got it, she was so dehydrated she couldn't cry. That was horrifying but she is now a healthy and very lively nine year old

“My son had pneumonia at two years old. One of the main symptoms was his temperature going up at night and crying, which was due to fluid collecting in his lungs while he was lying down. After five days, he was so sleepy we could barely get a response from him, so we took him to A&E. He was kept in for a few days on IV antibiotics and took about six weeks to get back to normal.”

“Two of my children had pneumonia. Both times they had a cold and then went downhill very quickly, becoming very ill. I took them to A&E as they were too ill to wait to see our GP and they were admitted straight away and put on antibiotics as the doctor weren’t sure it wasn’t meningitis. We stayed in hospital three nights and they recovered fairly quickly.”

“My son had pneumonia at 11 months. He recovered quickly – within a couple of days of being on the antibiotics he was noticeably better. But then he caught bronchiolitis about three weeks later. He recovered form that within about four days.”