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Is walking pneumonia contagious?

Medically reviewed by Sally Chao, MD. Last updated on Feb 2, 2021.

Official Answer

by Drugs.com

Walking pneumonia is a milder but still contagious form of pneumonia (a lung infection). It can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending droplets of bacteria into the air that can be inhaled by another person.

  • It spreads most easily through close contact in crowded settings or where people live or work together in close quarters. Outbreaks are more likely to occur in schools, college dorms, military barracks, nursing homes and hospitals.
  • It can take up to four weeks after someone is infected for them to start showing symptoms. The illness can still be contagious during this time, even though the infected person may not know they are sick due to the absence of symptoms.
  • However, being around someone who has walking pneumonia does not guarantee that you will become infected, and only some people infected with the bacteria responsible for the illness will actually develop pneumonia.

“Walking” pneumonia is not a medical term, but a popular way to describe a type of pneumonia that is not so severe and debilitating that it prevents someone from walking and going about their daily life, as other types may.

While walking pneumonia is usually a more mild illness than typical pneumonia, the symptoms also tend to last longer — from a few days to more than a month — and the infection can continue to spread until symptoms resolve. If the illness is caused by bacteria, taking antibiotics may speed up recovery and shorten the contagious period.

Different forms of pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Walking pneumonia is usually caused by the bacteria Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

Children and young adults are more likely to develop Mycoplasma pneumoniae infections. Being infected with the bacteria does not mean that you will contract pneumonia — much of the time, it only causes minor respiratory infections like a chest cold.

Common symptoms of a chest cold include:

  • Sore throat
  • Feeling tired
  • Fever
  • Slowly worsening cough that can last for weeks or months
  • Headache

When it does cause pneumonia, the infection is still likely to be mild, but will usually require antibiotic treatment.

Common symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Cough that may produce mucus
  • Fever and chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling tired

In some cases, Mycoplasma pneumoniae can cause more severe pneumonia that requires treatment in a hospital setting. People who have a weakened immune system, or are recovering from a respiratory illness, may be more at risk for severe infection.

You can protect yourself and others from walking pneumonia by maintaining good hygiene, including:

  • Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or the upper sleeve of your arm/elbow (not with your hands)
  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available
References
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections: Causes and How it Spreads. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/causes-transmission.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections: People at Risk. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/people-at-risk.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  3. Saraya T. Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection: Basics. J Gen Fam Med. 2017; 18: 118– 125. https://doi.org/10.1002/jgf2.15.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fast Facts You Need to Know about Infections Caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/fast-facts.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  5. New York State Department of Health. Mycoplasma Infection (walking pneumonia, atypical pneumonia). October 2011. Available at: https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/mycoplasma/fact_sheet.htm. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections: Treatment and Complications. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/treatment-complications.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/index.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Causes of Pneumonia. October 22, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/causes.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections: Signs and Symptoms. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/signs-symptoms.html. [Accessed November 18, 2020].
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infections: Prevention. June 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/about/prevention.html.  [Accessed November 18, 2020].

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