When children catch colds or flu, there is a possibility that pneumonia can develop in their lungs. Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs that is caused by bacteria, viruses or irritants. Whenever a child has a prolonged cough, parents should take him to see a health care provider to make sure this cold/cough has not developed into pneumonia.
There are two common types of pneumonia, bacterial and viral. Bacterial pneumonia is caused by bacteria such as streptococcus (the most common), group B streptococcus, staphylococcus aureus and group A streptococcus (most common in children over the age of 5). Viral pneumonia is caused by a variety of viruses, including influenza virus, adenovirus, parainfluenza virus and respiratory synctial virus (RSV is seen in children under the age of 5).
When pneumonia develops, a child's lungs may fill up with fluids (and mucus) causing difficulty in breathing. The mucus may be thick and discolored and may come up when the child coughs. Other symptoms to look for are fever, chills, breathing fast or slow, chest or stomach pain, vomiting, headache, poor appetite and general fussiness. Each child can show a different pattern of symptoms, and whether he has bacterial or viral pneumonia may affect the symptoms he has or the severity.
Diagnosis is made by the child's health care professional using these diagnostic tools: • Blood tests, including a complete blood count to look for evidence of infection, and arterial blood gas analysis of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. • Chest X-ray to examine the lungs on film. • Sputum culture to check coughed-up mucus to determine if an infection is present. • Pulse oximetry, which measures the amount of oxygen in the blood using a small sensor that is placed on the finger.
Antibiotics are given to children with bacterial pneumonia. Viral pneumonia will clear up on its own. Pneumonia may take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to resolve. Complicated cases are treated in the hospital; however, most children can recover at home with the appropriate medicines, diet and increased fluids.
Parents and caregivers can help prevent the onset of pneumonia by having the child: • Get a preventative shot known as the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. • Get a flu vaccine yearly, since influenza can lead to pneumonia. • Practice healthy habits at home including a good diet, plenty of rest and washing hands frequently.