Pneumonia In Kids: Causes, Symptoms, Signs and Treatment

Receiving a diagnosis of Pneumonia for your little one can be quite a shock, especially if you don’t know much about the disease.

It is a very common illness and is also, thankfully, a very treatable disease. The recovery rate can be as high as one hundred percent especially if it is discovered early and treated promptly.

In this article, we will discuss pneumonia in children, its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a mild to severe infection of the lungs, specifically the alveoli. The alveoli are small sacs in the lungs which fill up with air when we breathe and are necessary for air exchange. In pneumonia, they are filled with pus and fluids. This limits oxygen intake, making breathing difficult, painful, and may be life-threatening.

It may be limited to one lobe of a lung (called lobar pneumonia) or it may affect patches within both lungs (called bronchopneumonia). Pneumonia affects people of all ages but is commonest in children. It is the leading cause of death in children due to infections worldwide, responsible for about 2400 deaths per day with most victims under the age of 2 and in the poor regions of the world.


Pneumonia is commonest in areas of poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding, lack of safe water and sanitation, air pollution, and poor access to adequate healthcare leading to late presentation. It is also related to areas with a high burden of malaria, HIV, measles, and pertussis. The most affected children are those who –

  • Are malnourished
  • Had a low birth weight or were premature at delivery
  • Were poorly breastfed or weaned off too early
  • Are on steroid therapy or undergoing treatment for cancer
  • Have frequent respiratory tract infection
  • Have cystic fibrosis
  • Have parents that smoke
  • Have congenital diseases like cleft palate or congenital heart diseases
  • Were born into a low socioeconomic class

What Causes Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is mostly caused by disease-causing entities in the lower respiratory tract. These are usually viruses, bacteria and less commonly, fungi. The specific germ causes of pneumonia vary across the world and are different in different age groups.

Naturally, the body has defense mechanisms ready to fight off the invasion, starting with the airway linings, the cough and sneeze reflex and the immune cells in the respiratory tree among others. In pneumonia, these defense systems are overwhelmed or defective.

1. Viruses


Viruses are responsible for about 80% of all pneumonia cases. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is the commonest virus causing pneumonia globally. Other viruses responsible for pneumonia are:

  • Influenza (or flu) viruses
  • Parainfluenza viruses
  • Mumps virus
  • Measles virus
  • Adenoviruses

2. Bacteria


These are responsible for about 10% of all pneumonia cases. The most common bacterial cause of pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae. It is followed by Hemophilus influenza type b.

Bacterial pneumonia often starts with a progressively worsening fever, cough, and fast breathing. Pneumonia affecting the lower part of the lungs may also present with abdominal pain and fever. Your kid may start showing signs of difficulty in breathing or distressed breathing. Other bacteria responsible for causing pneumonia include:

  • Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Klebsiella pneumonia
  • Escherichia coli

How Is Pneumonia Transmitted?

Pneumonia is typically transmitted when children come in contact with people who are ill as a result of viruses or bacteria. These entities inhabit the nose or throat of affected people and can be spread when they sneeze, talk or cough.

Pneumonia may also be through blood, contact with infected surfaces or objects such as toys, tables, utensils, and computer keyboards that have been touched by an infected person.

Signs and Symptoms Of Pneumonia in Kids


The most common symptoms seen in pneumonia are largely the same for both viral and bacterial causes. However, the symptoms seen in viral pneumonia are usually more numerous but less severe than in bacterial pneumonia. These symptoms typically start 2 or 3 days after a cold or sore throat. They include:

  1. A recent infection of the airway
  2. Fever
  3. Headaches
  4. Malaise (tiredness)
  5. Lethargy
  6. Coryza (head cold)
  7. Wheezing
  8. Chest pain
  9. Cough
  10. Difficulty in breathing
  11. Difficulty feeding
  12. Dehydration
  13. Anorexia (loss of appetite), nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, especially if they are younger than 2 years.

In the event of the following, you must go to the emergency immediately:

  1. Cessation of breathing
  2. Bluish discoloration of lips, hands and feet or trunk
  3. Dehydration
  4. Grunting sounds when breathing
  5. Altered level of consciousness or loss of consciousness
  6. Fever of about 38.9 0 C (102 F), especially if your child is less than 6 months old.

How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

diagnosis of pneumonia

A diagnosis is usually made via interview, physical examination, blood tests, and a chest X-ray. Your doctor will check your child’s vitals, listen to his or her chest and breathing patterns.

It may also be necessary to get a blood culture, full blood count, sputum culture, a chest CT scan, bronchoscopy, and viral culture of the upper airway fluids.

What Are The Options For Treatment?

medication for pneumonia

Treatment depends on your child’s age, the severity of the disease, medical history, and chronic conditions if there are any.

In mild cases, antibiotics may be the only necessary step in management.  Antiviral agents are usually not necessary for treatment. Pneumonia is usually cleared between 1 and 2 weeks with little or no complications.

In severe cases, for example, if your child cannot feed, is dehydrated, has a chronic illness, and has significant difficulty in breathing, hospital admission with oxygen therapy and intravenous antibiotics will be required. More severe cases will require intensive care unit admission.

Ensure that you let your child get a lot of rest, remain hydrated, feed as often as necessary, and take medications as scheduled.

How Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

syringe vaccine

One of the most effective ways to prevent pneumonia in children is to provide them with adequate nutrition. This helps to boost their natural defenses so that they may defend themselves against microbial invaders. Additionally, environmental factors such as overcrowding, air pollution, and lack of access to clean water must be improved.

Following good hygiene practices, like hand washing, helps prevent them from coming in contact with the germs and microorganisms responsible for pneumonia.

The most important way to prevent pneumonia is to get vaccinated against it. Getting vaccines for Hemophilus influenza type b, influenza, measles, pneumococcal virus, and varicella viruses confers immunity against the commonest causes of pneumonia

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Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS

Dr. Zubair Abdulahi is a licensed medical practitioner with a degree in medicine and surgery who is interested in using new media to influence health decisions by providing information on health queries. He has written for top publications in Nigeria like the Guardian. When he's not working as a doctor, he enjoys the game of football as well as sight-seeing and listening to classical music.
Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS