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Walking pneumonia: When your cold is something more

On average, Americans get about a billion colds a year. Despite the sniffles, aches and fever, they’re usually no big deal once the bug runs its quick course. But sometimes what you think is a mild cold could be walking pneumonia, and it could end up lasting weeks or months. Recognizing the symptoms, and how they’re different from a cold or flu, will help you get better and heal faster.

What is walking pneumonia?

Walking (or atypical) pneumonia is a mild case of pneumonia caused by bacteria. It’s sometimes so mild, in fact, you feel well enough to work, go to school, run errands and keep up your regular routine. But walking pneumonia can still leave you feeling lousy, and ignoring the symptoms could set you up for a lengthy recovery.

Walking pneumonia affects the upper and lower respiratory tract and is spread mostly by sneezing, coughing and close contact with someone who’s infected. It can last for a week or month depending on your health and treatment. It’s also highly contagious, typically during a 10-day span when symptoms are most severe.

Anyone can get walking pneumonia, even if you’re in good health. You’re at higher risk if you are:

  • Over the age of 65
  • Under the age of 2
  • In bad health or have a weakened immune system
  • Living with a respiratory condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • A tobacco smoker or living with someone who smokes

What are the symptoms of walking pneumonia?

The symptoms of walking pneumonia are similar to a mild cold or flu. They can come on slowly and get worse over time. Pay attention to symptoms and take note if something out of the ordinary is going on.

Common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain when you breathe or breathe deeply
  • Dry cough lasting more than a week
  • Fever (less than 101 degrees) and chills
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness that lingers
  • Ear infection
  • Skin rash

The symptoms of walking pneumonia are far less severe than full-blown pneumonia, which can include a high fever (over 101 degrees), phlegmy cough and lethargy that leaves you with little energy to do much of anything.

How do you treat walking pneumonia?

Even when your symptoms seem mild and you don’t feel that bad, it’s still important to take care of yourself and seek medical care, especially if your symptoms last for more than a week. Without speedy treatment, a cough caused by walking pneumonia can linger for weeks or months.

MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care will get to the bottom of what’s ailing you. Your provider will evaluate your symptoms, perform an exam, and order a chest X-ray and lab tests if needed. If you’re diagnosed with walking pneumonia, you’ll be prescribed antibiotics to knock down the bacteria, which should have you feeling better in a matter of days.

If your condition is non-bacterial, fever-reducing acetaminophen and ibuprofen -- along with a cough suppressant -- will help ease your symptoms as you recover. Regardless of the diagnosis, you’ll also want to get lots of fluids and rest to let your body recuperate.

Can you prevent walking pneumonia?

There’s no surefire way to avoid walking pneumonia, but there are steps you can take to help prevent it and keep from passing it around.

1. Practice healthy habits. Exercise, a well-balanced diet and proper rest are key to avoiding infection.

2. Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water often and anytime you come in contact with someone who may be sick.

3. Avoid smoke. Smoking and exposure to smoke damages the lungs and makes you more susceptible to illness.

4. Get your annual flu shot. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia.

5. If you’re sick, stay home. Just because you feel well enough to work or run errands doesn’t mean you should, especially when you’re contagious.

6. Cover up when you cough or sneeze. Face away from others and cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your bare hands.

7. Ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine. While not effective for walking pneumonia, your health care provider may recommend the vaccine to prevent pneumococcal disease.

8. Don’t assume you’re protected. If you’ve had walking pneumonia before, you may be immune for a while. But it’s possible to catch it again.

If you’re concerned that you or your child may be showing symptoms of walking pneumonia, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. Schedule an appointment online or walk in to an Indigo near you anytime between 8 am to 8 pm every day of the week, even holidays. 


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