Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by viruses or bacteria. It can sometimes feel like a bad cold or the flu. It can also lead to serious, life-threatening illness and, in some cases, death.

Anyone can get pneumonia, but people with asthma are at higher risk for getting it. If you have asthma, you should know how to protect yourself against it.

What Is Pneumonia?

Your lungs have tiny air sacs that fill with air when you breathe in and filter out carbon dioxide when you breathe out. When you have pneumonia, these air sacs, called alveoli, can become inflamed and filled with fluid. It becomes hard for the oxygen you breathe in to reach your bloodstream, making it hard or even painful to breathe. Because the alveoli are filled with fluid, you may begin to have a cough that produces mucus and other symptoms.

There are many factors that can affect how serious pneumonia can be for you, such as:

  • Age
  • Health
  • Co-existing health conditions (like asthma)
  • The type of germ (virus, bacteria, or fungi) that is causing your pneumonia

People at risk of pneumonia include:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults with weakened immune systems or chronic health conditions (such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD)
  • Adults 65 and older

Pneumonia can be serious. About 1.4 million Americans go to the emergency department each year for pneumonia.2 Around 41,000 Americans die each year from pneumonia.2

What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

Every person may have different symptoms of pneumonia. They can vary from mild to severe. But the symptoms usually appear suddenly, are often similar to symptoms of the cold or flu, and last longer. You may have some of the following symptoms if you get pneumonia:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Cough (you may cough up greenish or yellow mucus)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Sweating and chills
  • Stiff neck
  • Disorientation (confusion)
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Call your doctor right away if you have trouble breathing, chest pain, fever of 102 F or more, or a persistent cough.

Are People with Asthma at Risk for Pneumonia?

For people with asthma, pneumonia can be very serious. But doctors don’t fully understand why. It may be because airways with asthma are different. It may make the lungs more likely to be affected by pneumococcal bacteria and infection. Corticosteroids, a common asthma medicine, may also increase your risk because they suppress your immune system.3,4,5 

What Causes Pneumonia?

Pneumonia infections can be caused by different organisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Some common viruses that can cause pneumonia are:

Common bacteria that cause pneumonia are Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) and Mycoplasma pneumoniae, especially in kids.1

Less often, illnesses like whooping cough, measles, and chickenpox can cause pneumonia. Vaccines are available for these illnesses. Getting these vaccines – along with the flu, COVID-19, RSV (if you are eligible), and pneumococcal vaccines – can help reduce the chances you get pneumonia.

What Are the Different Types of Pneumonia?

There are different types of pneumonia based on what caused the pneumonia and where you caught it.

  1. Community-acquired pneumonia: This is when someone gets pneumonia from their community or surroundings (not in a hospital). This is the most common type of pneumonia. It can be caused by:
    • Bacteria: The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in the U.S. is Streptococcus pneumoniae. You can inhale it into your lungs, or it can travel through your bloodstream to your lungs. It happens most often after you have had a cold or the flu. It may affect only one lung. Pneumococcal disease is caused by bacteria. This can be a serious type of pneumonia. Learn more about pneumococcal disease in the section “What Do People with Asthma Need to Know About Pneumococcal Disease?” below.
    • Fungi: If you have a weakened immune system or chronic health problems, you are at higher risk for this type of pneumonia. It is caused by fungi (living organisms such as yeasts, molds, and mushrooms) that are inhaled or found in soil or bird droppings.
    • Viruses: This is the most common cause of pneumonia in children under age 5. Viral pneumonia is usually mild, but it can sometimes be serious. Some of the viruses that cause the common cold and flu can cause this type of pneumonia. The COVID-19 virus can cause pneumonia, which can become severe.
  1. Health-care-associated pneumonia: This is when someone gets pneumonia during or following a stay in a hospital, health care setting, or a nursing home or rehab center. You can also get this type of pneumonia from outpatient centers, like dialysis centers. This type of pneumonia may be more resistant to antibiotics. It can be serious and life-threatening because the people who get it are already sick.
  2. Ventilator-associated pneumonia: This happens when you get pneumonia after being on a ventilator (a machine that helps you breathe or breathes for you by blowing air into your lungs). People who are at risk for this type of pneumonia use a breathing machine and are usually in an intensive care unit (ICU).

What Do People with Asthma Need to Know About Pneumococcal Disease?

Pneumococcal [noo-muh-kok-uhl] disease is a type of pneumonia caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus. This type of bacteria can cause many types of infections in your body, such as:

  • Lung infections
  • Blood infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Ear infections
  • Meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord)

Some of these infections can be life-threatening and may require a stay in the hospital.

Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but some people are more at risk than others. People at higher risk of getting pneumococcal disease include:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 and older
  • People with chronic conditions or weakened immune systems

If you have had a pneumococcal infection in the past, it will not keep you from getting it again.

Vaccines are the best way to prevent pneumococcal disease. There are two kinds of vaccines to prevent pneumococcal disease:

  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines
  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine

These vaccines protect against many but not all types of pneumococcal bacteria. It is also important to get the flu vaccine every year because having the flu increases your chances of getting pneumococcal disease.

The pneumococcal vaccine has been recommended for all U.S. infants and young children since 2000. It has worked well protecting infants from the infection.6

How Does Pneumonia Spread?

You can spread pneumonia in several ways. You can spread it through coughing, sneezing, or direct contact (like kissing). You can even spread it through contact with blood. Not everyone who carries the bacteria or virus gets sick from it. That means it is possible to catch it from someone who seems to be healthy.

How Do Doctors Treat Pneumonia?

If you have pneumonia, treatment will depend on what type you have and how sick you are. Bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics.

If your pneumonia is related to the flu or COVID-19, you may be given antiviral medicines and antibiotics, if needed. If you have a weakened immune system, you may be treated for a fungal infection.

Your doctor may also give you a corticosteroid, if needed. If your pneumonia is severe, you may require a hospital stay for more intensive treatment.

If you get pneumonia, be sure to rest and drink plenty of liquids to help you recover quicker. If your symptoms don’t get better, call your doctor right away.

How Can I Protect Myself from Pneumonia?

The best way you can avoid getting pneumonia is to get a vaccine. Getting the vaccines for pneumococcal disease, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), COVID-19, the flu, whooping cough (pertussis), RSV (if you are eligible), and measles is the most effective way to prevent pneumonia. Medicare and most insurance companies will pay for the vaccines.

Many people get the pneumococcal vaccine when they are children. But you may need another shot when you are an adult. Talk with your doctor to find out if you need another pneumococcal shot.

Practicing good hygiene can also help keep you healthy and from getting and spreading pneumonia. You can prevent infections by:

  • Washing your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds or longer (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available)
  • Cleaning and disinfecting community surfaces
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue
  • Limiting contact with cigarette smoke or quitting smoking
  • Keeping your asthma under control

Do the Flu and COVID-19 Vaccines Protect Me from Pneumonia?

The flu (influenza) and COVID-19 can affect your respiratory tract (lungs, nose, throat) and cause swelling. This can increase your risk of pneumonia. The best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get the vaccine every year. Get your shot at the beginning of flu season, which usually starts in October and ends in May. The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccine.  You can get it at the same time as your flu shot.

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Medical Review: January 2024 by Mitchel Grayson, MD

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Updated Recommendations for Prevention of Invasive Pneumococcal Disease Among Adults Using the 23-Valent Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPSV23). MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly 2010 Sep 3;59(34):1102-6. PMID: 20814406.
  2. FastStats – Pneumonia. (2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Lee TA, Weaver FM, Weiss KB. Impact of pneumococcal vaccination on pneumonia rates in patients with COPD and asthma. J Gen Intern Med 2007 Jan; 22(1):62-7.
  4. Talbot TR, Hartert TV, Mitchel E, Halasa NB, Arbogast PG, Poehling KA, et al. Asthma as a risk factor for invasive pneumococcal disease. New England Journal of Medicine 2005; 352(20):2082-90.
  5. Aliberti, S., Dela Cruz, C. S., Amati, F., Sotgiu, G., & Restrepo, M. I. (2021). Community-acquired pneumonia. The Lancet, 398(10303), 906–919.