What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be caused by airborne bacteria, viruses or, in rarer cases, fungi. Pneumonia affects the tiny air sacs in the lungs. When inflamed, the air sacs become full of fluid and pus making it difficult to breathe. While people at any age can develop pneumonia, it can be more serious for young children with developing immune systems or respiratory conditions, and for older adults.

Pneumococcal disease is pneumonia which is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae. These bacteria are the leading cause of bacterial pneumonia in young children and older people.

How serious is childhood pneumonia?

Each year in New Zealand, more than 150 children under the age of five years are admitted to hospital with pneumococcal disease. Repeated infections of pneumonia can lead to bronchiectasis, scarring of the lungs, which can cause ongoing respiratory complications.

What are the symptoms of childhood pneumonia?

What may begin as a cold or flu can develop into pneumonia as the body’s immune system becomes overwhelmed by an infection. Viral pneumonia generally advances over a few days, starting as a cold with a runny nose before the child develops a cough (often with yellow or green phlegm), breathing problems and sometimes, a fever and fatigue. Children with pneumonia may breathe very quickly or you may be able to see their lower chest draw in (rather than expand) when they inhale. They may also make a grunting sound when breathing or put a lot of extra effort into breathing.

Bacterial pneumonia moves more quickly, with symptoms developing over a day. It causes a high fever, a cough and breathing problems. Sometimes bacterial pneumonia can develop during a viral infection. When this happens your child’s cold symptoms may suddenly worsen. Pneumonia is usually diagnosed by a clinical examination based on symptoms and listening to the child’s chest. Occasionally health practitioners may also require a chest X-ray and blood tests.

If you suspect your child has pneumonia or any serious chest infection you should see your doctor. Get help straight away if your child is under three months old, breathing very quickly or struggling to breathe. If your child doesn’t seem to be improving after a mild illness or has been improving, and suddenly gets worse, then contact your doctor.

What is the treatment for pneumonia?

Infections caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics. As it can be difficult to determine if pneumonia has been caused by bacteria or a virus, doctors may prescribe antibiotics as a precaution.

If your child can be cared for at home, make sure they get lots of rest and encourage them to drink fluids regularly. If they are prescribed antibiotics, ensure they take the full course.

A child usually takes a couple of weeks to fully recover from pneumonia. During this time, they may cough up a lot of phlegm as the body clears out the lungs. The cough may last for four weeks, but if it continues after this time, then get it checked by your doctor. A long-lasting cough or a wet cough should always be checked by a health professional.

How do I prevent my child getting pneumonia?

You can help your child stay healthy by practising good hygiene, reducing exposure to air pollution and cigarette smoke, and living in a warm and well-ventilated home. Immunisation against pneumococcal disease, whopping cough, influenza and Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) can help prevent some of the serious causes of pneumonia.

All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against pneumococcal disease as part of their free childhood immunisations at six weeks, five months and 15 months old. They are not fully protected until they have had all three doses.

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