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Walking Pneumonia

"Walking pneumonia" sounds like it could be a character in a sci-fi horror flick. Although this form of infectious pneumonia can make you miserable, it's actually the least scary kind of pneumonia. That's because it's a mild pneumonia and does not generally require hospitalization. You could have walking pneumonia and not even know it.

Here is information about what causes this illness, how it spreads, and what you can do to avoid it.

What is walking pneumonia?

Walking pneumonia is a non-medical term to describe a mild case of pneumonia. It can also be called atypical pneumonia because the disease is different from more serious cases of pneumonia caused by typical bacteria.

Pneumonia is a disease of the lungs that often results from a lung infection. Lots of things can cause pneumonia, including:

  • Bacteria, including mycoplasma
  • Viruses
  • Fungi
  • Other infectious agents
  • Chemicals
  • Inhaled food

Walking pneumonia is often the result of a lung infection from a bacterial microorganism called Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

People who have walking pneumonia are seldom confined to bed or need to be hospitalized. Some may even feel well enough go to work and carry on with other regular routines, just as they might with a cold.

Who gets walking pneumonia and how is it spread?

Anyone at any age can get walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia from mycoplasma is most common, though, in older children and adults younger than 40.

People who live and work in crowded places, such as schools, homeless shelters, and prisons have a higher risk of contracting the disease. That's because walking pneumonia is contagious. It's spread when someone comes in contact with droplets from the nose and throat of someone who has it. That commonly happens when the person with walking pneumonia sneezes or coughs.

Cases of walking pneumonia are most common in the late summer and fall. But infections can occur with no particular pattern throughout the year. And, even though the disease is contagious, it spreads slowly. The contagious period in most cases lasts less than 10 days. Researchers also think it takes prolonged close contact with an infected person for someone else to develop walking pneumonia; still, there are widespread outbreaks every four to eight years. When those outbreaks occur, walking pneumonia can account for as many as one out of every two cases of pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of walking pneumonia?

Symptoms generally appear 15 to 25 days after exposure to the mycoplasma and develop slowly over a period of two to four days. Symptoms include:

Some people with walking pneumonia may also have an ear infection, anemia, or a skin rash.

How does the doctor know if I have walking pneumonia?

Some cases of walking pneumonia are never diagnosed because people don't seek medical help. If you do go to the doctor, the diagnosis will depend on your medical history and the results of a physical exam. The doctor will start by asking you about your symptoms and how long you have had them. The doctor may also ask you about where you work and whether anyone at home or at work is also sick.

During the physical, the doctor will listen to your chest with a stethoscope. The doctor may also ask for a chest X-ray and a blood test. There is a blood test that can specifically identify a mycoplasma infection. It's seldom done, though, unless there is a widespread outbreak that's being studied. Another blood test is used that identifies the increased presence of certain immune substances called cold agglutinins. This test won't confirm that you have walking pneumonia, but it can suggest it.

How is walking pneumonia treated?

Walking pneumonia is generally treated with antibiotics. Mild infections are often not treated because they tend to clear on their own. With treatment, most people begin to feel better within a few days.

Many over-the-counter medicines used for colds and flus may not help with complete relief of symptoms of walking pneumonia. It's important to talk with your doctor about any medicines you are taking or planning to take. It's also important to drink plenty of fluids and to give yourself time to rest.

If I've had walking pneumonia, can I get it again?

There is a certain level of immunity that occurs after someone has a case of walking pneumonia. It isn't permanent, though, and it's unclear how long it lasts. So you could at some point develop walking pneumonia again. When it does recur, it may be milder.

Can walking pneumonia be prevented?

There is no vaccine for mycoplasma infections, so there is no way to prevent it. There are things you can do, though, to reduce your chances of getting it:

  • Exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, and get adequate sleep. Exercise, rest, and proper nutrition help keep your body healthy. A healthy body is better able to resist infection.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent germs from spreading.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking damages the lungs, and damaged lungs are more susceptible to infection.
  • Cover your mouth with your sleeve when you cough or sneeze. And, urge others to do the same. Coughing and sneezing are the primary ways infectious agents are spread.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood, MD on May 23, 2014

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