What Is Atypical Pneumonia And How Do You Treat It?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pneumonia accounts for 14% of all deaths of children under 5 years old. Did you know that illness can come in many different forms?¹

One type of pneumonia is atypical or walking pneumonia. Atypical pneumonia is a strange illness, as you likely won’t even know that you’re sick. 

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Symptoms of atypical pneumonia 

Atypical pneumonia is a mild form of pneumonia. The condition is referred to as “atypical” or “walking” pneumonia because patients tend to feel well enough to go about their day and complete their normal activities. Some patients with atypical pneumonia may not even realize they have pneumonia. 

The symptoms of atypical pneumonia tend to be mild and can develop slowly. These can include:

  • Fatigue 

  • Chills 

  • Fever

  • Sore throat 

  • Cough 

  • Chest pain 

  • Headache 

  • Sneezing 

What causes atypical pneumonia?

Atypical pneumonia is primarily caused by a type of bacteria called Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This type of bacteria is most likely to affect people under the age of 40. 

After infection, the bacteria leads to inflammation in the lung tissue, which then results in the symptoms of atypical pneumonia. 

Other bacteria that can cause atypical pneumonia include Chlamydophilia pneumoniae and Legionella pneumophila. Legionella pneumophila is a type of bacteria that tends to affect older adults, smokers, and those with comorbidities. 

Who’s most at risk of developing atypical pneumonia?

As with pneumonia in general, people with a weakened immune system are more likely to develop atypical pneumonia as they will struggle to fight off the bacterial infection. This could include people who have recently had the flu.

People with lung conditions such as cystic fibrosis or COPD are at increased risk of acquiring atypical pneumonia. Smokers are also likely to develop an atypical pneumonia infection. 

Atypical pneumonia is often community-acquired, so those living in close proximity to others are more likely to get atypical pneumonia. This can include young adults in college housing, elderly people in rest homes, or children at camp. 

Treatment options for atypical pneumonia 

Your doctor will determine if you have atypical pneumonia by listening to your breathing and possibly ordering a chest x-ray and/or blood/mucus test. If you do have atypical pneumonia the main type of treatment will be antibiotics, such as macrolides, fluoroquinolones, or tetracyclines. 

What antibiotics are used for atypical pneumonia?

Erythromycin, clarithromycin, and azithromycin are the antibiotics that are commonly used to treat the Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection in atypical pneumonia. Other antibiotics that can be used to treat atypical pneumonia include fluoroquinolones (e.g., levofloxacin, ciprofloxacin) and tetracyclines (e.g., doxycycline, minocycline). 

How to manage symptoms 

As well as treating the bacterial infection with antibiotics, patients with atypical pneumonia can also help to relieve symptoms with: 

  • Cough medicine

  • Expectorants to break up mucus

  • Pain relievers

  • Rest

  • Increasing fluid intake 

What is the best treatment for atypical pneumonia?

Besides antibiotics, over-the-counter medication can help manage symptoms like headache, cough, and fever. 

In some cases, the symptoms of atypical pneumonia can be so mild that people remain unaware that they have an infection. When this happens, treatment may not be necessary. 

How to reduce your chances of developing atypical pneumonia 

Prevention of atypical pneumonia largely involves reducing exposure to the bacteria that cause the illness. According to the CDC, the risk of pneumonia can be lowered with vaccines.² 

There are additional things that you can do to reduce your chances of developing the disease:

  • Avoid those who are ill or wear a mask around sick people

  • Get your influenza vaccine, as you can develop atypical pneumonia after having the flu

  • Regularly wash your hands properly (with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds)

You can also help to prevent passing atypical influenza to others by staying home when you’re sick, wearing a mask around people if you are coughing or sneezing, and regularly washing your hands. 

What’s the outlook for patients with atypical pneumonia?

Thanks to its typically mild symptoms, the outlook for patients with atypical pneumonia is very good. Most patients with the illness will start to feel better after just a few days of antibiotic treatment.

However, some symptoms of atypical pneumonia, such as the cough, can stick around for a few weeks. 

If you’re concerned about your atypical pneumonia symptoms, it’s best to reach out to your doctor and discuss your condition with them. They will be able to gauge the seriousness of your symptoms and provide treatment when necessary. 

How serious is atypical pneumonia?

Atypical pneumonia tends to be a mild illness that can be easily treated with antibiotics and over-the-counter medication. Recovery can take anywhere from a week to a few months. It’s best to check in with your doctor if you’re worried about recovery times. 

The lowdown 

Atypical pneumonia is an interesting condition due to the fact that people often don’t even know that they have it. However, if you feel symptoms of atypical pneumonia, antibiotic treatment and over-the-counter medications can help manage them. 

Immunocompromised people and individuals living in close community settings will have an increased risk of developing atypical pneumonia. Standard prevention techniques such as masking and hand washing can help to reduce infection risk.

  1. Pneumonia in children | World Health Oarganization

  2. Pneumonia can be prevented—Vaccines can help | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention|

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