What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
Common pneumonia symptoms include:
- a cough, that may produce mucus (phlegm)
- breathing difficulties, often rapid breathing that may cause breathlessness
- chest discomfort or pain when coughing or breathing
- high temperature (fever)
- feeling unwell (malaise)
- loss of appetite
- sweating and shivering
- rapid heartbeat
Respiratory issues – pneumonia is an infection that causes an inflammation of tissues in the lungs. When these tissues become swollen it causes airways to narrow, making breathing more difficult as airflow is restricted. This inflammation can also cause an increase in the amount of mucus (phlegm) produced. This can lead to breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, and feeling tired, weak, or fatigued.
Chest discomfort and rapid heartbeat – pneumonia also causes air sacs (alveoli), which are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, to fill with fluid. When these air sacs are filled with fluid it makes it difficult for oxygen to get into your blood, which means that the heart needs to work harder to pump oxygen around the body. In severe cases, low levels of oxygen in the blood can also have an impact on the rest of the body, which can lead to complications Chest discomfort and pain is a common symptom of pneumonia, but if it becomes more severe then speak to your GP again.
Uncommon pneumonia symptoms include:
- coughing up blood
- confusion, especially in the elderly
- nausea and/or vomiting
- joint and muscle pain
Coughing up blood – prolonged or severe cases of pneumonia may cause blood to be brought up when coughing, which can come out on its own or be present in phlegm. If you do notice blood when coughing, even if it is a small amount, get in contact with your GP immediately as it may be a sign that pneumonia has progressed, is causing damage to the lungs, or there is something else going on in the lungs.
What could pneumonia symptoms be confused for?
Pneumonia symptoms are similar to a number of other conditions – it can be difficult to tell whether you are experiencing symptoms of pneumonia, flu, or another chest infection - especially as pneumonia can be caused by other infections. Below is a summary of some key differences between pneumonia and conditions or infections that it can be confused for.
Pneumonia and the flu – symptoms of the flu normally come on suddenly and more severely, and can knock you off your feet unexpectedly. The symptoms of pneumonia tend to develop over a longer period of time. Flu is more likely to make you ache all over, while you are more likely to experience a tight chest or chest pain with pneumonia. Another key difference is that the flu may cause you to get a blocked nose, which is not a symptom of pneumonia. Also, pneumonia can be a complication of the flu, so if you think you have flu, but aren’t getting better or develop pneumonia symptoms, see your GP.
Pneumonia and the common cold – if you have a cold, you are likely to have a runny nose and a sore throat – both of which are not symptoms of pneumonia. The common cold also does not typically make you as unwell as pneumonia, which can cause a fever or any aches or pains, which the flu may also cause.
Pneumonia and bronchitis – the symptoms of pneumonia tend to be more severe than bronchitis (typically a viral infection of the large airways) such as a higher fever. Symptoms of bronchitis usually go away on their own within a few days to a few weeks, while symptoms of pneumonia may persist for a few months.
How long do pneumonia symptoms last?
The length of time depends on the cause and severity of the infection – pneumonia is an infection that can affect people differently, based on a number of different factors such as age, fitness, and severity of symptoms.
With treatment, most cases of bacterial pneumonia will follow the rough timeline below:
After one week – your fever should have subsided
After four weeks – chest pain should reduce, and you should be bringing up less phlegm when you cough
After six weeks – you should have a lot less difficulty breathing and your cough should be much better
After three months – most symptoms should have gone away but you may still feel tired or weak
After six months – all pneumonia symptoms should have cleared up
If your symptoms aren’t improving, are getting worse, or you are concerned, see your GP.
What are the possible complications of pneumonia?
Pleurisy – an inflammation of the thin tissue that covers the lungs (pleura), which can cause breathing difficulties and sharp chest pain.
Pleural effusion – a build up of fluid in the thin tissue that covers the lungs (pleura), which can cause one or both lungs to collapse and become unable to inflate.
Lung abscesses – a bacterial infection that causes tissues in the lung to die and form pus-filled cavities.
Blood poisoning (septicaemia) – bacterial pneumonia can result in a bacterial infection of the bloodstream, which can cause serious health complications, such as sepsis, and is potentially life-threatening.