Walking pneumonia vs. pneumonia: Same tune, different songs

In rocking fashion, Johnny Rivers and other noted singers have wailed about pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu. With great gusto and a stomping backbeat, they somehow make pneumonia sound almost fun. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In rocking fashion, Johnny Rivers and other noted singers have wailed about pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu. With great gusto and a stomping backbeat, they somehow make pneumonia sound almost fun. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Pneumonia of any form is nothing to take lightly. It is a lung infection that can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Common symptoms of pneumonia include cough, fever and trouble breathing.

This time of year, when the sounds of coughing become a common chorus, you might hear someone say, “Maybe I have walking pneumonia.” This raises the question: What’s the difference between “walking” pneumonia and “real” pneumonia?

“Walking pneumonia” is a nonmedical general term used to describe symptoms that are mild enough that a person can continue with daily activities and doesn’t need to be hospitalized. The term is sometimes used as a preliminary diagnosis when there is some evidence of a lung infection but it is not yet confirmed by a chest X-ray or other tests.

One major distinction between walking pneumonia and pneumonia is the agent that causes the condition. Walking pneumonia is usually an infection caused by  Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria. The onset of the illness is typically gradual, with symptoms such as headache, runny nose, sore throat and sometimes fever. It may be mistaken for a common cold. Unlike a cold, however, walking pneumonia may worsen, with an increasingly moist cough and possible hoarseness as the disease settles into the chest. Walking pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. It is not life-threatening and requires no hospitalization.

“Walking pneumonia is more commonly seen in our younger or healthier patients. Since they are still able to go to work and do daily routines, it is not always caught until it progresses for couple of weeks,” said Christina M. Breit, M.D., internal medicine physician with Norton Community Associates – Mallard Creek.

Regular pneumonia can be caused by bacterial, viral or fungal infections. It also can stem from physical damage to lung tissue, such as that caused from breathing in smoke or chemicals. Another distinction to remember about regular pneumonia is, depending on when it’s caught and treated, the infection can range from mild to severe to life-threatening. Antibiotics are used to treat regular pneumonia when it stems from a bacterial infection. Various other treatment options come into play when pneumonia is caused by a virus or a fungal infection.

The bad news (as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is that each year in the United States, about 1 million people are hospitalized with pneumonia and about 50,000 of them die from the disease.

The good news is that we have effective ways to prevent pneumonia. You can lower your risk by getting an annual flu shot, and a pneumonia shot as needed (pneumococcal vaccination is recommended every five years.) Wash your hands often. Regularly clean frequently touched surfaces. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow or sleeve.

These steps are particularly important for anyone with a lung disease (including asthma and COPD), immune deficiency disease or a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes.

“Vaccination and prevention are critical. The majority of fatalities from the flu are due to a pneumonia that develops while your body is fighting the flu,” explains Dr. Breit.

All pneumonia symptoms should be taken seriously. Be prepared to seek medical care for problems that linger beyond a few days or worsen. High temperature, chest pain, bloody sputum or trouble breathing that comes on suddenly — especially if the nail beds or skin look dark or blue — warrant immediate medical attention.

Norton Immediate Care Centers, a network of 12 facilities located throughout the area, provide a great option for you and your family’s urgent care needs. No appointment is needed for these physician-staffed centers that can do on-site lab tests and X-rays. You also can count on quality, compassionate care around the clock at any of our six emergency departments

The bottom line here is simple: By being informed, focusing on prevention and getting prompt medical care when it’s needed, there’s no need for pneumonia to have you singing the blues.


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