When you have cold-like symptoms — headache, runny nose, cough and a sore throat — you likely slow down a bit, thinking you can beat it in a few days. But when the symptoms linger or worsen — not enough to knock you off your feet, but enough so that you can’t ignore them — you may have walking pneumonia.
Walking, or atypical, pneumonia strikes about 2 million in the United States each year. It tends to be less serious than traditional pneumonia, which causes 50,000 deaths and more than half a million emergency room visits annually. In fact, you can be up and walking around, unaware that you have this type of pneumonia — that’s how it got its name.
But walking pneumonia can still leave you feeling lousy. And it’s highly contagious. Here, pulmonologist Neal Chaisson, MD, explains how you can end up with this respiratory infection.
How walking pneumonia develops
Bacteria called mycoplasma pneumoniae cause walking pneumonia. Children and younger adults develop it most often — the infection spreads easily in crowded environments like schools and college dormitories.
But walking pneumonia can also hit nursing homes. The infection spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and other people inhale the bacteria.
Symptoms usually begin within two weeks of exposure, but the bacteria can incubate for up to a month — and you’re contagious during that incubation period. Over about four days, the symptoms gradually worsen and include:
- Sore throat
- Persistent, dry cough
- Increased mucus
- Chest pain when breathing
- Violent cough
Antibiotics: Do you need them or not?
While some doctors may assess your symptoms, assume you have walking pneumonia and prescribe an antibiotic, Dr. Chaisson doesn’t recommend that approach. “The vast majority of patients with these symptoms have something viral, such as an upper respiratory infection, sinus infection or bronchitis,” he explains. Such illnesses are treated with time, rest and symptom-relieving medication.
Dr. Chaisson cautions that antibiotic overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance and an outbreak of Clostridium difficile. C. difficile, an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea and abdominal pain, is difficult to treat and can lead to death — particularly in elderly patients.
However, if symptoms linger for longer than a few days or if you have a chronic health issue, it is best to visit your doctor to see if you might have walking pneumonia. Chronic conditions include:
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease
Although walking pneumonia may go away on its own, antibiotics can make it pass more quickly. Walking pneumonia can be confirmed by a chest X-ray, which will show an area of infection in the lung.
Take steps to prevent illness
There’s no surefire way to avoid getting walking pneumonia, Dr. Chaisson says. But you can do three things to help prevent it.
- Get your flu shot. Getting your yearly flu vaccine is always important, particularly if you have diabetes, heart disease or lung disease. The flu can turn into pneumonia, and both infections are dangerous when you have these conditions.
- Ask your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults over 65 should receive both Prevnar 13® and Pneumovax 23®, Dr. Chaisson says. Patients with chronic health issues may be eligible earlier.
- Take special care when you or others are sick. Hand hygiene is always important, but it’s urgent when a lot of sickness is going around. Take these steps:
- If you or those around you have symptoms, be aggressive about washing your hands or using hand sanitizer.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue, a handkerchief or your elbow — not into your bare hands.
- If you use tissues, throw them away appropriately.
- Wear a mask around sick people if a chronic condition makes pneumonia or flu risky for you.
“Also, make sure you are eating healthy, keeping healthy habits, maintaining good sleep and following a good exercise routine,” says Dr. Chaisson.
“These small things are the elixir of prevention.”