Viral pneumonia is pneumonia that develops as a result of a viral infection in the lungs.
The symptoms of viral pneumonia are often similar to those of bacterial pneumonia, but, depending on the virus responsible, there may be a few additional symptoms.
A wide range of viruses can cause viral pneumonia, including influenza and coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
Viral pneumonia is often mild, but in rare cases, it can be life threatening.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of viral pneumonia.
The symptoms of viral pneumonia can range in severity and may include the following:
- a cough that is likely to be dry initially but may produce yellow or green mucus
- shortness of breath
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- blue tint to the lips
Viral pneumonia tends to present differently in each age group.
Young children with viral pneumonia generally have mild symptoms that gradually worsen. A child with viral pneumonia may develop noticeable wheezing, and their skin and lips often take on a blue tint due to a lack of oxygen. They are also likely to lose their appetite.
On the other hand, adults over the age of 65 years may experience abnormally low body temperatures, confusion, and dizziness.
A wide range of viruses can cause viral pneumonia, including:
- influenza A, B, and C viruses
- coronaviruses, including those that cause COVID-19, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
- parainfluenza virus
- adenoviruses, which cause bronchitis and some common colds
- varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles
- respiratory syncytial virus, which is most serious in young children but can cause cold-like symptoms in people of all ages
Viruses spread easily when affected people sneeze or cough. A person can also get the infection if they come into contact with a contaminated surface.
Coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that cause respiratory illness, can lead to viral pneumonia. They include SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the viral outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
According to the WHO, most reported cases are relatively mild — 81% of people have illness that causes no complications, while 14% will develop serious illness and need oxygen therapy, and 5% will need treatment in an intensive care unit.
Severe pneumonia is among the most common complications resulting from severe COVID-19. It may develop by the end of the first week of infection.
People with preexisting health conditions and older adults are more likely to develop severe pneumonia from SARS-CoV-2.
The situation is still developing, so these findings and figures may change.
Viral pneumonia can affect anyone, as the viruses that cause it are very contagious.
However, the following factors may increase a person’s risk of developing viral pneumonia:
- being older than 65 or under 2 years of age
- living in a group setting, such as a nursing home, prison, or dormitory
- working in a hospital or nursing home
- tobacco smoking
- alcohol or illicit drug abuse
- having a chronic illness, such as a heart, respiratory, or autoimmune disease
- having a compromised immune system, possibly due to cancer or HIV
- recovering from a recent viral infection
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. Doctors classify pneumonia according to its cause. The usual causes of pneumonia include:
- fungal infections
Bacterial and viral pneumonia are more common than pneumonia resulting from fungal infections.
Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae cause bacterial pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is usually more severe than viral pneumonia.
The symptoms of bacterial pneumonia may include:
- very high fever
- shaking chills, or rigors
- rapid breathing
- shortness of breath
- a cough with blood or mucus
- tiredness or lack of energy
Viral pneumonia may have some of the same symptoms, but the symptoms tend to be less severe.
Bacterial pneumonia requires treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics do not help treat viral pneumonia unless there is a secondary bacterial cause.
A doctor will be able to diagnose viral pneumonia.
They will generally begin by asking about any symptoms and carrying out a physical examination. As part of the examination, the doctor will listen to the lungs for any abnormal sounds that may indicate pneumonia.
These sounds may include crackling in the lungs or wheezing while breathing. A doctor will also check for a rapid heart rate and decreased airflow.
If the doctor suspects that pneumonia may be present, they are likely to order some of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:
- chest X-ray
- nasal swab to check for viruses
- sputum culture of the mucus from the lungs
- blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) to look for inflammatory markers
- arterial blood gas test
The tests that the doctor decides to order will depend on the severity of a person’s symptoms and whether they are in one of the higher risk groups.
People with a higher risk of developing pneumonia should see a doctor or visit an emergency room immediately if they develop flu-like symptoms alongside any of the following:
- chest pain
- a high fever
- confusion in older adults
- difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
Pneumonia can be extremely serious in higher risk individuals. These people will need immediate treatment for the best outcome.
Viral pneumonia usually goes away on its own. Therefore, treatment focuses on easing some of the symptoms. A person with viral pneumonia should get sufficient rest and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
A doctor may prescribe cough-relieving medication to help ease coughing. People should only take cough suppressant medicine if and when a doctor instructs them to because coughing helps clear the infection from the lungs. For those with thick lung mucus, a doctor may prescribe a cough expectorant.
In some cases of viral pneumonia, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to reduce viral activity. This treatment tends to be most effective when the virus is in the early stage of infection.
In rare instances, a doctor may hospitalize a person with viral pneumonia. People over the age of 65 or with chronic health conditions are more likely to need hospital care. The very young are also at higher risk for serious viral pneumonia.
The viruses that cause viral pneumonia are contagious. During the cold and flu season, a person can take steps to stay healthy. These steps may protect against viral pneumonia and other viral illnesses.
Some techniques that people can use to try to prevent getting sick include:
- washing the hands frequently with warm water and soap
- getting a flu shot
- avoiding touching the nose or mouth
- getting enough sleep
- exercising regularly
- eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
- practicing physical distancing, including staying away from people who are sneezing and coughing
Most people with viral pneumonia recover within a few weeks. However, some people may take several weeks to recover fully, especially those who have a weakened immune system or are over the age of 65 years.
While viral pneumonia can be contagious, a person can practice good hygiene and self-care to lower their risk of getting the infection.