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Is pneumonia contagious?

Cropped SingleCare logo By | May 11, 2020
Medically reviewed by Michael L. Davis, MD

Pneumonia is an infection that affects the lungs. Breathing becomes difficult for an infected person with pneumonia because air sacs in the lungs, also known as alveoli, begin to fill with fluid. Pneumonia can be life-threatening. Nearly 50,000 people in the US die from this illness every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Any respiratory infection can be concerning, especially with the looming threat of coronavirus. But is pneumonia contagious? Read on to learn who is at risk for contracting pneumonia and how to prevent it from spreading.

How do I know if I have pneumonia?

Pneumonia symptoms may present within 24 hours after infection or come on slowly. Common symptoms of pneumonia sometimes resemble cold- or flu-like symptoms including coughing, fever, and trouble breathing.

The cough itself may be “wet” or “productive,” meaning you cough up yellow, green, or even brown mucus from the lungs. Hemoptysis (coughing up blood, bloody mucus, or phlegm) and coughing at night can also occur during a bout of pneumonia.

A high fever, upward of 105 degrees, can be a reaction to the body fighting an infection associated with pneumonia. If you’re feverish, you may experience chills, sweating, and shaking. 

Difficulty breathing may feel like shortness of breath, or feeling like you can’t catch your breath. Chest pains, including sharp or stabbing feelings when coughing or trying to take a deep breath, are common once pneumonia develops. Furthermore, cyanosis (low oxygen in the blood) may occur, causing your lips, fingertips, or skin to turn blue from a lack of oxygen. 

Additional symptoms of pneumonia can include a loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. 

Is pneumonia contagious?

There are more than 30 causes of pneumonia. Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are the most common causes of pneumonia in the United States, according to the CDC. Bacterial and viral forms of pneumonia are contagious. However, pneumonia caused by the inhalation of chemical irritants, fungi, or aspiration pneumonia (inhaling food or liquid) is not contagious. 

Contagious varieties of pneumonia are transmitted from person to person through airborne particles. Coughing and sneezing into the air can directly contaminate another person. Similar to the spread of the common cold, flu, and COVID-19, airborne particles can land on a surface and indirectly infect someone. Walking pneumonia is another way of describing mild pneumonia that might feel like a chest cold. If you are infected, even if you are asymptomatic, you can still spread the viruses or bacteria that can cause pneumonia.

Bacterial pneumonia

Some bacteria are more contagious than others. Mycobacterium and mycoplasma are known for how easily they can spread. Streptococcus pneumoniae causes most cases of bacterial pneumonia. This respiratory illness is contagious and likely to affect older people and individuals with impaired immune systems. 

Bacteria can find a way into the lungs and cause an infection, especially in individuals who are on respirators, suffering from other illnesses, or hospitalized. Hospital-acquired pneumonia occurs when individuals who are already ill get pneumonia while undergoing medical treatment in the hospital.

RELATED: FDA approves Xenleta to treat bacterial pneumonia

Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonias are also contagious. Influenza or “the flu” is a common cause of viral pneumonia in adults. However, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), coronaviruses (COVID-19 is simply one type of the many coronaviruses), and the common cold can also cause pneumonia. In addition to fluid collecting in the lungs, lung tissue becomes inflamed and irritated with most pneumonias.

Who is at high risk of pneumonia?

Cases of pneumonia can be mild to severe and even life-threatening, depending on your physical condition and the type of pneumonia your have. Anyone—young or old—can get this respiratory condition. The following groups are more susceptible to developing pneumonia:

  • People 65 years of age and older
  • Patients with a preexisting respiratory illness, such as COPD or asthma
  • People with underlying health problems, such as heart disease or HIV/AIDS
  • Those with weakened immune systems, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy, recovering from surgery, taking immunosuppressant drugs, or breathing on a ventilator
  • People with overall poor health 
  • People who smoke or drink excessive amounts of alcohol

A medical professional can diagnose pneumonia with a physical examination or chest X-ray and prescribe medication as necessary. 

In general, children are more likely to get pneumonia than adults. Pneumonia is the number one cause of childhood deaths in the world. Although child mortality rates from pneumonia are significantly less in America because of available health care, pneumonia is the number one reason why children are hospitalized in the United States. Children 5 years old and younger are at higher risk for pneumonia than older children.

How long is pneumonia contagious?

The average time an individual is contagious from pneumonia is approximately 10 days. However, some cases of pneumonia (particularly pneumonia associated with tuberculosis) can be contagious for several weeks, depending on the form of pneumonia and the type of medical treatment recommended.

Antibiotics can significantly decrease the contagiousness of bacterial pneumonias. After starting antibiotics, an individual is still contagious for another 24 to 48 hours. Once the fever associated with the illness is gone, the pneumonia is less likely to be contagious. Coughing can continue for several weeks due to lingering inflammation, even after effective treatment. 

“Home remedies such as the use of honey to relieve coughing and zinc to boost the immune system, especially during a case of viral pneumonia,” can be helpful tools, according to Kate Tulenko, MD, the founder and CEO of Corvus Health. 

Getting medical treatment can reduce the duration of illness and the risk of spreading it to other people. If your fever returns or if lingering symptoms fail to go away, ask a healthcare provider for advice.

How to prevent pneumonia

Some pneumonias are preventable. Vaccinations are available to prevent pneumonia caused by some viruses and bacteria. Also, living a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet and regularly exercising can minimize the risk of contracting pneumonia. Routine exercise can increase lung health and resistance to infections. 

A healthy lifestyle also includes refraining from smoking and drinking too much alcohol to help keep the immune system healthy. Getting plenty of rest and drinking water is yet another way to help prevent illnesses like pneumonia.

Practicing thorough hand washing can also reduce your exposure to germs that can cause pneumonia, especially during cold and flu season. If you cough or sneeze, do your best to do so into a disposable tissue or the elbow of your sleeve, followed by washing your hands. Be sure to disinfect frequently used surfaces such as telephones, countertops, and doorknobs to prevent the spread of germs that can cause pneumonia. 

Lastly, if people in your community are sick, do your best to practice social distancing when possible. Reducing your exposure to bacteria and viruses while living a healthy and active lifestyle can play an essential role in maintaining wellness.