Published: Oct. 30, 2009
Updated: Oct. 30, 2009
After a week of cold symptoms in their child, parents are frequently come to my office concerned that the child might have pneumonia. Most often in these cases, children do not have pneumonia -- but occasionally they do.
Dr. Heather McLean, a pediatric hospitalist at Duke, tells us how you might be able to tell the difference between a cold and pneumonia.
-- Dennis Clements, MD, PhD, MPH
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that may be caused by a variety of microorganisms (germs) such as viruses and bacteria. Infrequently, these infections can start as an upper respiratory illness (cold) and then develop into pneumonia a few days later.
Pneumonia is a common and possibly very serious infection that occurs in children throughout the world. In children less than five years of age, the annual incidence of pneumonia in our country is between 34 to 40 cases per 1,000. The good news is that most children are easily treated by their health care provider and can remain at home.
Some common signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include, fever, cough, chest pain, fast breathing, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal pain, or a poor appetite. You should call your child’s doctor or health care provider if you suspect your child has any of the signs and symptoms of pneumonia.
Your child’s health care provider can diagnose your child with pneumonia based on symptoms and physical examination usually. Additional tests such as a chest x-ray or blood tests are sometimes performed to help make the diagnosis.
Most of the time, your child may be treated at home with oral antibiotics. Antibiotics are given to treat bacterial causes of pneumonia. The choice of antibiotic will depend on many factors such as the age of your child, her symptoms, medical health history, or allergies to medicines. If a virus is determined to be the cause of the pneumonia, then antibiotics are generally not used.
If your child has been given an antibiotic, you should give the medicine on schedule for as long as directed. You should encourage your child to drink fluids, especially if she has a fever. Do not force a child to eat but continue to encourage eating healthy foods if she feels up to it.
Cough and cold medicines will not help your child recover and are not recommended. Treating your child’s fever with ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help them feel better.
Children with pneumonia occasionally require hospitalization if they:
Your child will be discharged home to complete the antibiotics once she has improved and no longer requires more intensive therapies such as oxygen and intravenous fluids.
Rarely children with pneumonia develop a “complex pneumonia” or pneumonia with an effusion with some types of infection. An effusion is a fluid collection that develops between the lung and chest wall.
If this fluid turns into an empyema (pus), then your child may require an operation to remove the fluid and place a chest tube, so she can get better in addition to the antibiotics already being given.
Most causes of pneumonia are not contagious -- although the upper respiratory viruses (cold viruses) that lead to them are.
Here are some tips to prevent the spread of infection to other people:
-- Heather S. McLean, MD, is a pediatric hospitalist in Duke's Department of Pediatrics.
-- Dennis Clements, MD, PhD, MPH, is the chief of primary care pediatrics at Duke Children's Hospital.