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What Is Atypical Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. Atypical pneumonia refers to pneumonia caused by certain bacteria, including Legionella pneumophila, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, and Chlamydophila pneumoniae. Atypical pneumonia is also called “walking pneumonia” because the symptoms can be very mild and people may not know that they have pneumonia.

What Causes Atypical Pneumonia?

The bacteria causing pneumonia due to mycoplasma and chlamydophila are usually spread from person-to-person through infected airborne respiratory droplets created by coughing and sneezing. Mycoplasma pneumonia usually affects people younger than 40 years of age. It is commonly spread in crowded environments, such as in households, schools and places of work, more often during winter than other seasons. Chlamydophila pneumonia occurs year round, however, and accounts for 5 to 15% of all pneumonias. Outbreaks of Legionella pneumonia have been associated with exposure to aerosols from contaminated warm water supplies, such as found in hot water tanks, cooling towers, hot tubs, and parts of the air-conditioning systems in large buildings. Soil and water in the environment may also serve as sources of the bacteria.

What Are the Symptoms of Atypical Pneumonia?

Chills, cough, fever, and shortness of breath are common symptoms in atypical pneumonia. The symptoms are usually mild and although they will gradually improve, it may take more than a month for them to go completely away. Chest pain with breathing or coughing, headache, lost of appetite, tiredness and fatigue, muscle aches, and sweating are also seen. Ear pain, eye pain, sore throat and rash may occur during acute illness with mycoplasma pneumonia.

Symptoms can be variable and more severe with Legionella infections compared to Mycoplasma and Chlamydophila pneumonia. Coughing up bloody mucus, mental confusion, and diarrhea may occur. A higher death rate is seen.

How Is Atypical Pneumonia Diagnosed?

A diagnosis is made from the medical history, physical examination, and blood, urine and sputum tests. A chest x-ray may be needed to differentiate atypical pneumonia from acute bronchitis. Bronchoscopy may also be done for serious illnesses. In bronchoscopy, a lighted tube passed through the nose or mouth is used to see inside lungs.

How Is Atypical Pneumonia Treated?

People with atypical pneumonia are advised to drink plenty of fluids to help loosen respiratory secretions and to get a lot of rest. Fever and discomfort may be controlled with aspirin (WARNING: do not give aspirin to children), nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen) or acetaminophen.

People with atypical pneumonia are treated with a course of antibiotics for 2 weeks or more, although some mild cases are not treated. Atypical pneumonia may not respond to the antibiotics commonly used to treat other kinds of community-acquired bacterial pneumonia.

Severe atypical pneumonia can mean a hospital stay where antibiotics are given through a vein (intravenously), and supplemental oxygen can also be given.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Atypical Pneumonia:

  • DO remember that hand-washing is the best way to stop spreading infections.
  • DO practice respiratory etiquette (cover your coughs and sneezes).
  • DO drink plenty of fluids (six to eight glasses per day) to avoid dehydration.
  • DO breathe moist air (use a humidifier) to help get rid of phlegm.
  • DO use acetaminophen or aspirin (except in children) for relief of fever and pain.
  • DO take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Finish all the antibiotics.
  • DO call your health care provider if you get a rash (may mean a drug allergy).
  • DO call your health care provider if you suspect worsening illness because you have a high fever, bloody sputum, increasing phlegm or severe headache. Call immediately or go to the emergency room for increasing shortness of breath.
  • DO tell your health care provider about your medicines (prescription and over-the-counter).
  • DO get a flu shot every year and ask your health care provider if you need a pneumonia vaccine.
  • DON’T stop taking your antibiotics because you feel better unless your health care provider says so.
  • DON’T smoke!

Contact the following sources:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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