When does a cough turn into pneumonia?

When does a cough turn into pneumonia

So you’ve been coughing for a while, and instead of getting better, it seems like your cough is getting worse. Maybe you’ve even started coughing up phlegm or have pain in your chest when you cough. Those are signs your cough might actually be pneumonia.

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs that can range from mild to life-threatening, which causes your lungs to fill up with fluid or pus. You may experience difficulty breathing or have a fever. If you’re a healthy young adult, pneumonia might not be as serious as it is for very young kids or adults over age 65.

Whether you’ve had your cough for three days or three weeks, knowing the symptoms of pneumonia and when to go to the doctor can help put your mind at ease.

Signs and Symptoms of Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms and their severity vary depending on the type of pneumonia you have. There are several types of pneumonia, but the most common include bacterial and non-bacterial.

Bacterial Pheumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is the most common type of pneumonia. A bacterial infection often follows a viral infection that causes a cold or the flu. If you have bacterial pneumonia, your symptoms will be more serious and noticeable than non-bacterial pneumonia. Symptoms include:

  • Fever (usually above 101F)
  • Cough that produces discolored mucus and continues to get worse
  • Chills
  • Rapid breathing
  • Pain when coughing or breathing deeply
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle or joint aches
  • Confusion (in older adults)

Non-bacterial or “walking pneumonia”

Walking pneumonia usually indicates a more mild pneumonia caused by a bacteria called mycoplasma pneumoniae. If you have walking pneumonia, your symptoms will be mild and you’ll probably function normally. Walking pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Dry cough that’s persistent and typically gets worse at night
  • Low-grade fever
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain when you breathe deeply or cough
  • Loss of appetite

Viral Pneumonia

Many viruses can lead to pneumonia, including the flu virus or RSV. These diseases don’t respond to antibiotics and treatment is usually helpful, although anti-virals may be required. Symptoms are similar to bacterial pneumonia but may also include headaches, extreme fatigue, or decreased appetite. 

When to call your doctor

Call your doctor if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Persistent fever of 102F or higher
  • Persistent cough (especially if you cough up mucus or pus)

Who’s at risk

Although pneumonia is dangerous for anyone, it can be deadly for:

  • Children younger than 2
  • Adults over age 65
  • Individuals with weakened immune systems
  • Individuals with heart conditions
  • Individuals with chronic lung problems
  • Individuals undergoing chemotherapy or taking medications that suppress the immune system

If you’re at risk, contact your doctor right away if you start showing symptoms of pneumonia.

Diagnosing pneumonia

You might have a difficult time determining if you have a simple cough or if you have pneumonia. Thankfully, your doctor should have a better idea. To diagnose pneumonia your doctor may perform:

  • Blood tests to confirm an infection
  • A chest x-ray, which will help your doctor determine where your infection is located and how bad it is
  • A sputum test that takes a sample of fluid from your lungs after a deep cough
  • Pulse oximetry, which measures the oxygen level in your blood

Getting treatment for pneumonia

Once you’ve been diagnosed, your doctor can begin treating your pneumonia. In most cases, you can be treated at home. However, your doctor may choose to hospitalize you if you’re risks of getting worse are high or your symptoms are severe. Common treatment for pneumonia includes:

  • Antibiotics, which target and treat bacterial infections. More than one type of antibiotic may be needed to treat your pneumonia.
  • Cough medicine to help reduce coughing and allow for more rest.
  • Pain reliever/fever reducer to help bring down your fever and pain symptoms. Most over-the-counter medications should work, but your doctor may recommend specific medications.

If you have pneumonia signs or symptoms, don’t wait too long before you contact your doctor. Getting the right treatment will help you feel better more quickly.