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What Is Viral Pneumonia?

By

Updated June 23, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Certain coughs can be serious.

Michael Krasowitz/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

What It Is:

Viral pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that is caused by a virus. Pneumonia can be caused by many other things as well, including bacteria, fungus or chemicals.

Symptoms:

Symptoms of viral pneumonia are similar to those of other types of pneumonia, but may be less severe than a bacterial pneumonia. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cough (may be productive - meaning you cough up mucus)
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath (which you may only notice when you are climbing stairs or exerting yourself)
  • Pain in the chest or pain when breathing deeply or coughing
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exhaustion or fatigue

Symptoms of viral pneumonia may start like those of the flu - fever, weakness, body aches and a dry cough. Within a few days, it can progress to more difficulty breathing, a productive and painful cough and a higher fever. Although the course of the illness will not be the same for everyone, this is common for many people.

Causes:

Viral pneumonia often develops as a complication of a less serious viral infection, such as a cold, upper respiratory infection or the flu.

Viral pneumonia is typically less severe than other types and will resolve in 1 to 3 weeks.

Some types of viral pneumonia, specifically those caused by the influenza virus, can be severe and even fatal. There may not be clear evidence that the lungs are filling with fluid and it can quickly lead to severe shortness of breath or even gasping for air. Those who are at highest risk for this type of viral pneumonia include people with chronic heart and lung problems and pregnant women.

In some cases, a person with viral pneumonia may also develop bacterial pneumonia when bacteria invade the lungs as well. This occurs because the body is trying to fight off the viral infection and the immune system is not as strong as it would be otherwise.

Treatment Options:

Antibiotics are not effective against viral pneumonias. Typically, treatment will be managing symptoms and letting the virus run it's course. If there is evidence that a person has also developed bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed. Occasionally, doctors may prescribe antiviral medications to treat viral pneumonia.

Things you can do for yourself if you have viral pneumonia include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids. This will help loosen mucus in your lungs so you can cough it up more effectively and keep you hydrated, making it easier for your body to heal.
  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Take over the counter pain relievers or fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or aspirin if needed.
  • Avoid cough medications unless specifically instructed to take them by your doctor. Suppressing a cough when you have pneumonia prevents the mucus in your lungs from being expelled, which can actually make the pneumonia worse.

Complications:

Complications from viral pneumonia, while rare, can occur. These include:

  • Respiratory failure or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (a severe form of respiratory failure)
  • Sepsis
  • Emphysema or a lung abcess
  • Death

These complications are most common in people in high risk groups like infants, adults over age 65, people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or COPD and smokers.

Prevention:

Minimizing your risk for viral infections will also reduce the chance that you develop viral pneumonia. Getting your flu vaccine every year, using good cold and flu prevention practices and paying attention to your symptoms will reduce your risk as well.

If you are at high risk, talk to your health care provider about the pneumonia vaccine and whether or not it is right for you.

 

Sources:

"Understanding Pneumonia." Lung Disease 2012. American Lung Association. 24 Oct 12.

"Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment." Lung Disease 2012. American Lung Association. 24 Oct 12.

 

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