5 Signs Your Child Might Have Pneumonia

Your child has been coughing, sneezing and running a temperature. Is this the common cold, or could it be something more serious like pneumonia?

Dr. Jonathan Auth, a CHOC pediatrician, offers five signs your child might have pneumonia.

On the surface, symptoms can be similar. But Dr. Jonathan Auth, a CHOC pediatrician, says parents can look for five key signs that indicate their child may have developed bacterial pneumonia, an infection of the lungs:

1. Grunting

Listen to the child’s breathing. A consistent grunting noise associated with his breaths is typically a warning sign, Dr. Auth says.

2. Flaring

Pay attention to the child’s nostrils. Do they flare open and closed as she breathes? This can be a sign that breathing is impacted deeper in the lungs.

3. Retractions

Closely examine a child’s torso where the abdomen meets the rib cage. As he breathes, look for a sucking motion of the skin. Referred to as a retraction, this movement indicates that the child is having difficulty breathing.

4. Late onset fever

A fever that appears more than three days after cold symptoms first surfaced could be an indicator of pneumonia or another secondary infection, Dr. Auth says. Generally, if a fever accompanies a cold, it typically will arise at the beginning of the illness. A late fever is often a sign of trouble.

5. Increased respiratory rate

Look for more rapid breathing in your child. This varies by age, but Dr. Auth says a good rule of thumb is that an infant younger than 2 months taking more than 60 breaths per minute; a baby aged 2 to 11 months taking more than 50; and children older than 1 taking 40 or more breaths per minute should be evaluated by a pediatrician.

How to stop a cold from turning into pneumonia

There is no sure-fire way to ensure a pneumonia doesn’t follow a cold, but parents can take a few steps to minimize the possibility.

First, keep the child hydrated through liquid consumption and a humidifier, Dr. Auth says.

The goal is to ensure the body’s mucus secretions do not dry and thicken to create a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes pneumonia, he explains.

Hydration also keeps the tissue that lines the body’s cavities, like nostrils, from drying out. Dry mucosal lining can crack, which makes it easier for bacteria to enter and cause illness, Dr. Auth says.

Children with asthma and a history of allergies should also take steps to control inflammation and allergens in the home.

Protect Your Child From Pneumonia

Pneumonia, an inflammation or infection of the lungs, is a serious condition that can be prevented, a CHOC infectious disease specialist says.

“Pneumonia is a serious condition and can often be prevented by getting vaccinated for illnesses that can lead to pneumonia,” says Dr. Antonio Arrieta, CHOC’s director of infectious disease and director of infectious disease research.

Several vaccines recommended for infants and young children can help prevent bacterial or viral infections that can lead to pneumonia, says Dr. Arrieta, who encourages parents to seek these vaccines for their children as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other medical associations.

Vaccines for the following illnesses can help prevent people from getting pneumonia:

  • Influenza (flu): The flu vaccine is given annually at the beginning of flu season.
  • Measles: The MMR vaccine protects against measles, as well as mumps and rubella.
  • Pertussis: A vaccine called DTaP protects against whooping cough, a contagious infection that prompts a violent cough.
  • Pneumococcal: A vaccine for this condition is recommended for children younger than 5, and decreases the risk of acquiring bacterial pneumonia by about 70 percent, Dr. Arrieta says.
  • Chickenpox: The CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine against this condition for children, adolescents and adults.

The streptococcus pneumonia is the most common bacterium to cause bacterial pneumonia, Dr. Arrieta says.

Other bacteria that may lead to bacterial pneumonia include Group B streptococcus, which is most common in newborns; Staphylococcus aureus; and Group A streptococcus, which is most common in children older than 5, Dr. Arrieta says.

Unlike bacterial pneumonia, viral pneumonia is caused by viruses such as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is most common in babies and children younger than 2, and the influenza virus, or the flu, says Dr. Arrieta.

Though the flu typically lasts for no more than five days, pneumonia can linger for longer. Thus, prevention is key, Dr. Arrieta says.

Talk to your pediatrician for information about vaccines and the recommended vaccination schedule, as well as other ways to prevent your child from getting pneumonia.

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