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Walking Pneumonia in Older Adults

Diagnosis In Older People May Be Delayed

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Updated October 21, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Walking pneumonia, as the name implies, is a lay term for describing any type of pneumonia that is not severe enough to cause hospitalization. It is not an actual medical diagnosis. A person with "walking pneumonia" can often carry on their usual daily tasks while they are infected.

Any type of bacteria or virus can cause pneumonia. Walking pneumonia usually infects younger people - 70% of cases are in people between the ages of 5 and 16 - but it can infect older people. In fact, in recent years, walking pneumonia accounts for 15% of all pneumonia that infects people 65 and older.

Symptoms of Walking Pneumonia

Symptoms of walking pneumonia usually worsen gradually. The most common symptom is a hacking, dry (non-productive) cough, which may change to a productive cough later. Other symptoms can include headache, feeling tired, sore throat, wheezing and low-grade fever.

While walking pneumonia has relatively mild symptoms, it can also take up to a month or more to heal, especially in older people whose immune systems are less robust.

Diagnosing Walking Pneumonia

Diagnosis of pneumonia is difficult. When the doctor examines the person, they may appear just to have a cold. Depending on symptoms, a chest x-ray may be ordered, which will help diagnosis of pneumonia (although not tell the doctor what organism is causing the pneumonia).

Several different types of laboratory tests are necessary to confirm a diagnosis of walking pneumonia, and some of these tests require a long time or must be repeated 2 to 4 weeks apart, so these tests are typically not performed. They are usually done only for people with weakened immune systems.

In general, if bacterial respiratory infection is suspected, the antibiotics given to cure most of these will also cure walking pneumonia, so doctors may not feel it necessary to run all of the laboratory tests to figure out exactly which organism is causing the pneumonia.

Prevention of Walking Pneumonia

There is really no way to prevent walking pneumonia, aside from the usual hygiene recommendations of frequent handwashing and avoiding people who are sick.

What Can I Do If I Think I Have Walking Pneumonia?

If you are an older person and think you may have walking pneumonia, see your doctor. If you have been coughing for several days, ask your doctor to consider the idea that it might be walking pneumonia. He or she may not think of walking pneumonia right away, as it is so much more common in younger people than in the elderly. Maybe your doctor will start with a chest x-ray to help with diagnosis, rather than begin a complicated set of laboratory tests.

If the diagnosis of walking pneumonia is confirmed, you will be prescribed an antibiotic.

There is a chance that your doctor will want you to receive treatment in the hospital, especially if you have any other medical conditions. In the hospital, you will receive antibiotics intravenously, as well as extra fluids and oxygen treatment. If you are treating yourself at home, other things you can do to speed recovery from walking pneumonia are:

  • Drink plenty of water and warm fluids
  • Use a humidifier at night
  • Rest in bed

Sources:

Clyde WA, Jr. Clinical overview of typical Mycoplasma pneumoniae infections. Clin Infect Dis 1993; 17 Suppl 1:S32.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae. MedlinePlus. Accessed February 2011.

Mitty J. Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection in adults. UpToDate. Updated August 13, 2010.

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