In the US, about 1.5 million people are diagnosed with pneumonia. It can affect individuals of all ages, and symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. While you may be familiar with traditional pneumonia, have you heard of walking pneumonia? Learn more about walking pneumonia and how it can affect seniors.
Walking pneumonia is a non-medical term that refers to a case of pneumonia that is mild and doesn’t require hospitalization. It is called “walking” pneumonia because someone with it could be walking around and not even know. Because the infection isn’t severe, individuals may chalk up their symptoms to a cold — including doctors sometimes.
Pneumonia is usually diagnosed through a chest X-ray. But if your symptoms aren’t severe, a doctor may not order an X-ray, leaving walking pneumonia undetected
Walking pneumonia is a health condition caused by the same underlying factors as traditional pneumonia. It is ultimately an infection in the lungs that is brought about by one of the following:
- Inhaled food
However, most cases of walking pneumonia are caused by bacteria called Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This type of bacteria can live and grow in your nose, throat, windpipe, and lungs.
This bacterium also makes walking pneumonia hard to diagnose. Mycoplasma has a natural resistance to medicines that usually treat bacterial infections. And it is often mistaken for a virus because it doesn’t have a typical cell structure for bacteria.
Just like regular pneumonia, if the underlying cause is bacteria or a virus, walking pneumonia is contagious from person to person and is spread through sneezes or coughs. Pneumonia caused by mycoplasma also has a long incubation period, so you could be considered contagious 2 to 4 weeks before you even have symptoms. This results in individuals spreading walking pneumonia without even realizing it.
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The symptoms of walking pneumonia can resemble a cold or the flu. Common symptoms include the following:
- Chest pain
- Low-grade fever
- Mild chills
- Sore throat
It's worth noting that walking pneumonia doesn't usually cause shortness of breath like traditional pneumonia does.
Symptoms of walking pneumonia usually start out very mild and then worsen over a few days. But the symptoms may be so mild that an individual continues with their everyday routine — going to work, socializing, or doing other activities.
Other individuals, however, may feel like they have a bad cold and need to take time to rest. If an individual has existing respiratory conditions, like asthma or COPD, or a weakened immune system, their walking pneumonia could also develop into a more severe pneumonia.
Walking pneumonia symptoms can start to ease up after 3 to 5 days, but individuals may have a lingering cough for several weeks or months. Once symptoms have resolved, an individual is no longer considered contagious.
Who Gets Walking Pneumonia?
Anyone can get walking pneumonia. However, walking pneumonia caused by mycoplasma is most common in children and adults under 40. The bacteria spreads easily in crowded places, like work and school. But seniors can also develop walking pneumonia.
This type of pneumonia accounts for 10% to 40% of pneumonia contracted outside of a healthcare setting.
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It can be difficult to diagnose walking pneumonia. However, doctors may hear a crackling sound when listening to breathing during a physical exam. This symptom is one that you wouldn’t notice on your own, but it is a red flag for pneumonia. As needed, a doctor may also confirm the diagnosis with a chest X-ray or through mucus samples.
Luckily, this type of pneumonia can be treated with an antibiotic. If you notice symptoms and you don’t think it’s a cold, bring up your concerns about walking pneumonia with your doctor. It’s always best to get treated early to avoid long-lasting symptoms or damage.
Here are some ways to help you recover safely and speedily at home:
- Take medications as prescribed
- Drink lots of fluids
- Take a fever-reducing medicine if you have a fever
Preventing Walking Pneumonia
You and your family can follow the same general recommendations to avoid traditional pneumonia to help you avoid walking pneumonia.
- Get the flu vaccine.
- Talk to your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine. While there is no vaccine for mycoplasma pneumonia, you can avoid getting other types of pneumonia.
- Maintain a healthy diet.
- Get enough sleep at night.
- Avoid smoking.
- Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands frequently. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and encourage others (especially children) to do the same.
If you or a loved one needs help recovering from any type of pneumonia, our professional caregivers are here to help. We can take care of chores and prepare meals while you rest and recover. Reach out to your local Caring team to learn more.