Is Pneumonia Contagious and Other Useful Information

I'm often asked "is pneumonia contagious". I will answer that question but the answer will make more sense if I answer some other common questions about pneumonia in babies and toddlers first.

The answer to the question "Is pneumonia contagious" is similar in adults as in children, so click here if you want to skip the details about childhood pneumonia and go straight to the answer to find out if pneumonia is contagious.

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When I refer to pneumonia on this page, I will be referring to community acquired pneumonia, which means pneumonia that a baby or toddler gets outside of hospital.

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What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection that involves the lung tissues. The lung tissues involve the alveoli (or air sacs) and the bronchi (air tubes). You may also have heard of alveolus and bronchus - that's a single air sac and a single air tube. A pneumonia that involves both the alveoli and bronchi is referred to as bronchopneumonia.

Pneumonia that affects both lungs is sometimes referred to a "double pneumonia". Infection in the bronchi is sometimes referred to as bronchitis. 

Read on to answer "is pneumonia contagious?"

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Who gets pneumonia?

Anybody can get pneumonia. Around 3 - 4 % of children less than 5 years of age in North America get pneumonia. There are some risk factors that can make pneumonia more severe, including:

  • prematurity
  • cystic fibrosis
  • immune problems
  • malnutrition
  • poverty
  • exposure to tobacco smoke
  • attendance at day-care - "is pneumonia contagious?" - not really but read more about this below. If your child is sick, keep her away from day-care

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What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia can be caused by viruses and by bacteria.

Most pneumonia in children less than 2 years of age is viral in origin. That means that antibiotics will not work, but in most cases, the body will be able to fight the infection and your infant or toddler will recover. The viruses seen in pneumonia include:

  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
  • Parainfluenza
  • Influenza A and B - read more

When considering "is pneumonia contagious", it is important to remember that the organisms that cause pneumonia can be contagious, particularly the viruses. So the viruses can be passed from one person to another although the infection may result in a "cold" rather than pneumonia. It is very important to teach your child to cover their mouth when coughing and to use tissues which should be binned after use.

Teach your child to cough into her (bent) elbow - it is better than coughing into the hand which will more likely be in contact with other things so more likely to spread - the elbow won't be in contact with much else.

In children older than 2 years of age, bacterial causes of pneumonia are more likely with the following bacteria commonly seen:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Moraxella catarrhalis
  • Chlamydia pneumoniae

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What is a chest infection?

A chest infection is a general term which refers to an infection in the chest which could be pneumonia, bronchitis, bronchopneumonia or bronchiolitis.

Chest infection is often used for minor infections of the chest which are usually viral. In this case, the answer to "is pneumonia contagious" is "no", but again the virus causing the pneumonia may spread to others. Sometimes, viral chest infections are called "walking pneumonia".

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How will I know my child has pneumonia?

There are a range of symptoms and signs we see with pneumonia in children. Every child is different and so children with pneumonia may not all have the same symptoms and signs, but may have one or more of the following:

  • difficulty breathing - this may just be breathing faster than normal or may include working harder as well, so you may notice the ribs with each breath or you may notice the nostrils flaring with breathing. Sometimes younger children make a grunting sound with each breath
  • fever
  • cough
  • chest pain
  • chills and shivers (called rigors)
  • sometimes children with pneumonia even complain of abdominal pain

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Why do children with pneumonia show signs of difficulty breathing?

The normal job of the lungs is to take oxygen from the air you breathe in and transfer that oxygen from the alveoli (air sacs) to the blood stream and to take carbon dioxide from the blood and transfer it to the air you breathe out.

If there is infection in the alveoli or the bronchi, it is harder for the oxygen transfer to take place, so the body has to work a little bit harder.

The signs of this increased work of breathing can be quite subtle so in pneumonia you may only notice that the rate of breathing is increased. Other signs include prominence of the ribs, flaring of the nostrils, a grunting sound with each breath and in severe cases, blue lips.

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What is the normal rate of breathing?

The rate of breathing depends on age, so a guide is:

  • for infants less than 12 months of age, the normal rate is between 25 and 40 breaths per minute, so a rate above 50 breaths per minute would be fast
  • for children between 1 and 5 years of age, the normal rate is between 20 and 30 breaths per minute, so a rate above 40 breaths per minute would be fast
  • for children over 5 years of age, the normal rate is between 15 and 25 breaths per minute, so a rate above 30 breaths per minute would be fast

If your child is working hard with breathing but the rate is not as high as above, still act on the work of breathing - so if you are worried about the work of breathing, don't be reassured just because the rate seems fine. Your child may have a serious respiratory disorder with a breathing rate that is not as high as the rates above. Rate is just one indication of breathing difficulty.

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How do you tell the difference between viral pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia?

There is no easy way to do this but your doctor will make an assessment based on the age of your child, the severity of your child's symptoms and signs, what organisms are known to be in the community at the time and the chest x-ray appearances.

If you or your child has been in contact with anyone with tuberculosis make sure you tell your doctor as it might be important information for your doctor to factor into decisions regarding investigation and treatment. Again when considering "is pneumonia contagious", having contact with tuberculosis is important to note as tuberculosis is contagious and contacts of a person with tuberculosis need a medical review.

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What is the treatment of pneumonia?

The treatment depends on the cause.

  • For bacterial causes of pneumonia, an oral antibiotic like Amoxicillin is usually used. Occasionally, children require intravenous antibiotics to start the course. A course of antibioticsusually lasts 5 to 10 days.
  • For viral causes, no specific treatment is required but it is important to prevent your child becoming dehydrated.
  • If children with pneumonia have a temperature and are miserable with it, you can give Paracetamol or Acetaminophen.
  • Over-the-counter cough medicines are not recommended - read more.
  • Occasionally, a pneumonia will be associated with infected fluid in the lung (empyema) and this will require surgical drainage.
  • In developing countries and poor communities, giving zinc supplements in addition to antibiotics has been shown to improve the outcome of pneumonia in children.
  • Children who are sick enough to be admitted to hospital may require oxygen.
  • "Is pneumonia contagious?" - it is not considered contagious so no special isolation precautions are necessary for children hospitalized with pneumonia. Read more

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Will my child need a repeat chest x-ray after treatment for pneumonia?

Most children do not require a repeat chest x-ray after treatment for pneumonia. However, if your child still has signs of difficulty breathing 3 weeks after the treatment has finished, see your doctor as a chest x-ray would be helpful in understanding why your child still has symptoms.

Children who have a complicated initial pneumonia (for example, an empyema) will also require a repeat chest x-ray.

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What happens if my child gets pneumonia a second time?

Children who get more than one episode of pneumonia are usually investigated to make sure their immune system is working well and that they don't have an underlying illness like cystic fibrosis.

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How can I prevent pneumonia in my child?

There are some general measures that you can undertake to try and reduce the risk of your child getting pneumonia but even with these measures, some children will still get pneumonia. Things that may prevent pneumonia include:

  • breast-feeding your baby - this can help prevent viral infections
  • avoiding tobacco smoke
  • hand-washing - when considering "is pneumonia contagious", remember that the viruses that can cause infections in children are spread by droplets and hand washing will reduce the spread of viral infections
  • immunization - there is a recommended immunization schedule for each country. Most will immunize against Haemophilus influenzae type B and there has been a reduction in pneumonia due to this organism as a result. Many countries also include immunization against Pneumococcus (known as pneumococcal vaccine), which is a cause of pneumonia in children. So when considering "is pneumonia contagious", remember that the organisms that cause pneumonia are infectious and can be spread and you can reduce the risk of these infections by immunization

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Is pneumonia contagious?

So, we're back to the original question, "is pneumonia contagious".

Pneumonia in itself it usually not contagious but the organisms, particularly the viruses, that cause pneumonia can be contagious.

Pneumonia can be caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or influenza and these viruses can be passed from person to person. You may just have a cold but someone else may get a pneumonia. From that point of view, the virus is contagious but not the pneumonia.

When your child has a "cold" or pneumonia it it important to take care to prevent spread of viruses by hand-washing so you minimise the infection being contagious. Also teach your child to cover her mouth when coughing or sneezing.

To prevent the viruses that can cause pneumonia being contagious, it is wise to keep your unwell child away from other children and to keep your well child away from children who may be unwell.

Some conditions causing a type of pneumonia such as tuberculosis are very contagious and you should see your doctor if you have been in contact with someone with tuberculosis. This pneumonia is contagious.

So overall, unless you have tuberculosis, the answer to the question "is pneumonia contagious" is "no", but take precautions not to spread the germs that can cause pneumonia when you or your child is not well.

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How can I prevent the spread of germs?

There are some basic measures you can take to reduce the spread of respiratory bugs (both viruses and bacteria). So although the answer to "is pneumonia contagious" is generally "no", the germs (viruses and bacteria) that can cause pneumonia are contagious and you can prevent them spreading.

To read about the prevention of spread of respiratory viruses and bacteria, click here (opens in a new page).

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Is pneumonia contagious to my baby if I have it?

As you see above, most pneumonia is not directly contagious to your baby. If you are not well, you should follow these steps:

  • cover your nose and mouth if sneezing or coughing - ideally use a tissue and then bin it. Otherwise, sneeze into your (bent) elbow
  • wash your hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser - at least 10 times per day and every time before you handle your baby or make up food
  • don't share utensils or cutlery with your baby
  • don't kiss your baby - try a hug instead

Although pneumonia is not usually contagious, the fact that you are unwell means your baby may get unwell too. Following the steps above gives your baby the best chance.

However, if you have Tuberculosis, then the answer to "is pneumonia contagious" is yes. You and your baby will require treatment.

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References

  • Alberta Clinical Practice Guideline. The Diagnosis and Management of Community Acquired Pneumonia:Pediatric. 2006 Update
  • Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Evidence-based care guideline for community acquired pneumonia in children 60 days through 17 years of age
  • Bhandari N, Bahi R, Taneja S, Strand T, Mibak K, Ulvik RJ, Sommerfelt H, Bhan MK. Effect of zinc supplementation on pneumonia in children aged 6 months to 3 years:randomised controlled trial in an urban slum. BMJ. 2002. 324:1358
  • Brooks WA, Yunus M, Santosham M, Wahed MA, Nahar K, Yeasmin S, Black RE. Zinc for severe pneumonia in very young children:double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 2004. 363(9422):1683-8
  • Rojas MX, Granados C. Oral antibiotics versus parenteral antibiotics for severe pneumonia in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006. Issue 4
  • Kabra S, Lodha R, Pandey RM. Antibiotics for community acquired pneumonia in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006. Issue 4

To go to the top of the "Is Pneumonia Contagious" page, click here

To go to the main Breathing difficulty page, click here - gives information on when to contact the doctor

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Last reviewed 28 April 2011

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