Walking pneumonia may sound scary, but it just means a mild case of pneumonia — the patient is “walking” around instead of lying in bed or in a hospital. Hillary Clinton is just one of an estimated four to five million people who pick up a similar lung infection each year in the US. In Australia, around two in 1000 people will be diagnosed annually.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Walking pneumonia isn’t a technical term, says Dr Albert Rizzo, the chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Christiana Care Health System. The closest thing in medical terminology is “community acquired” pneumonia, meaning the patient picked it up somewhere in their everyday life, rather than during a hospital stay for some other condition.
What Is Pneumonia, Anyway?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lung parenchyma, which means the part of the lung where the air sacs, called alveoli, are. That’s different from bronchitis, which is an infection of the tubes called bronchi that lead from your throat toward the air sacs.
Pneumonia can be a serious and even life threatening condition, especially if somebody gets it in addition to other medical problems. People who are very young or very old, or who have other lung conditions to start with, are most at risk. If they come down with pneumonia while in a hospital or nursing home, it’s more likely to be a severe case. It may be resistant to antibiotics, which makes it hard to treat.
How Bad Is ‘Walking’ Pneumonia?
But it’s totally possible to have a mild case of pneumonia, and this is where “walking” pneumonia comes in. If you’re an otherwise healthy person, and the virus or bacterium that infects you isn’t a particularly dangerous one, you might not have any symptoms worse than a cough and a little fatigue. Symptoms may also include a fever and chills.
Where Does Pneumonia Come From, and What Can We Do About It?
The infection that causes pneumonia can be from a virus, from bacteria, or occasionally from other types of germs like fungi. Often, community-acquired pneumonia comes from Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria, Dr Rizzo says.
There’s no specific way to avoid pneumonia, besides generally taking care of yourself and avoiding germs through boring but effective means like hand washing. There is a vaccine against several types of pneumonia-causing bacteria, and in the US it is recommended for children under age six, for people 65 and over and for anyone with risk factors like chronic lung disease. In Australia, a vaccine is free for children under age four, people over 65 and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and children.
Antibiotics are the standard treatment for bacterial pneumonia, and within a day or two, the patient typically starts to feel better. In the meantime, the sick person should rest, eat well and make sure to stay hydrated.