What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia (noo-MOH-nyah) is swelling and fluid in the lungs that is usually caused by an infection (in-FEK-shun). The fluid in your lungs may make it hard for you to breathe. People with pneumonia can have symptoms that range from mild to very severe (bad).

Picture of the normal respiratory system

What causes pneumonia?

  • Many different kinds of germs can cause pneumonia. The two most common kinds of germs that cause pneumonia are viruses and bacteria (bak-TEE-ree-ah). You may get these germs by breathing them in, such as breathing the air around someone who is coughing. You may get sick from touching something that has germs on it, such as a dirty tissue. You may get pneumonia from a germ in your own body that travels to the lungs.

  • You may be more likely to get pneumonia if you have a lung disease such as asthma or emphysema (em-fi-SEE-mah). You are more likely to get pneumonia and other lung infections if you smoke. Having a long-term medical condition (such as heart failure) may also increase your risk of getting pneumonia. If you have to stay in bed for a long time, such as after an injury or surgery, you have a greater chance of getting pneumonia. Your risk of getting pneumonia increases as you age. You may be more likely to get pneumonia if you have a long-term drinking problem (alcoholism), or if you have a poor diet.

What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia?

Pneumonia can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe.

  • Common signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:

    • Frequent coughing. Your cough may be dry, or it may bring up mucus from your lungs. This mucus may be green, yellow, or white, and may have streaks of blood in it.

    • You may feel tired and have body aches. Your nose may feel runny or stuffy.

    • You may have a fever or chills.

    • You may have shortness of breath or noisy breathing (such as a high-pitched wheezing).

    • You may have chest pain when you cough or take a deep breath.

  • Signs that your pneumonia may be serious: If you have pneumonia and have any of the following signs, contact a caregiver right away.

    • A fever with shaking chills.

    • Your heartbeat or breathing (while resting) seems much faster than normal.

    • Severe dizziness, fainting, or having new trouble thinking (confusion).

    • You feel like you cannot get enough air, or your lips or fingernails turn dusky or blue.

  • Special signs to watch for in an older person: Signs and symptoms of pneumonia may be hard to notice in an older person. An older person may have only a mild fever. They may have pain in the upper part of their abdomen (belly). Sometimes the only signs of pneumonia in an older person are new weakness, new confusion (trouble thinking), or breathing faster than normal. Pneumonia can become serious very quickly in older people. If you or someone you care for is an older person and has any of these signs, tell a caregiver right away.

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Your caregiver may ask you many questions about your signs and symptoms. Tell your caregiver if you have been around any sick people or animals, or if you have traveled recently. Your caregiver will examine you and listen to your heart and lungs through a stethoscope (STETH-oh-skohp). You may need tests such as blood tests or a chest x-ray.

How is pneumonia treated?

  • You may be treated at home if your pneumonia symptoms are mild. You may need to go into the hospital for tests or treatments. Stay away from smoke, dust, and fumes. Most people should drink at least eight (8 ounce) cups of water a day. This helps to keep your air passages moist and better able to get rid of germs and other irritants. Use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe, and help decrease your cough. Be sure to clean your humidifier with soap and water every day to prevent germs.

  • You may need medicines to help your symptoms. These may include cough medicine, pain medicine, inhalers, oxygen, and steroids (STER-oids). You may need antibiotics (an-ti-bi-AH-tiks) to prevent or treat an infection caused by bacteria.

How can I decrease my chances of getting pneumonia?

  • Quit smoking. Do not smoke, and do not allow others to smoke around you. Smoking increases your risk of lung infections and other health problems. Smoking also makes it harder for you to get better after being ill. Talk to your caregiver if you need help quitting smoking.

  • Vaccines: Ask your caregiver if you should get vaccinated against the flu or pneumonia. The best time to get a flu shot is in October or November. Flu shots are good for one year. Pneumonia shots are good for five to six years. Ask your caregiver which vaccinations are right for you.

  • Avoid spreading germs: You can decrease your chance of getting lung infections and other illnesses by doing the following:

    • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing hand lotion or gel with you when you leave the house. You can use the lotion or gel to clean your hands when there is no water available.

    • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.

    • Always cover your mouth when you cough. It is best to cough into a tissue or your shirtsleeve, rather than into your hand. People around you should also cover their mouths when they cough.

    • Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.


Pneumonia can be serious, even life threatening. Pneumonia is even more dangerous for people over the age of 50, and people with immune (i-MUN) system or other health problems. If your pneumonia is very bad, you may need to stay in the hospital. It may take a long time to get better after having pneumonia. The sooner your pneumonia is treated, the less chance you have of problems.

For more information:

Contact the following for more information about pneumonia:

  • American Lung Association
    61 Broadway, 6th floor
    New York City, NY 10006
    Phone: 1-800-586-4872
    Web Address:
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta, GA 30333
    Phone: 1-404-6393311
    Phone: 1-800-3113435
    Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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