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Pneumonia in children

What is pneumonia in children?

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. It can affect one or both lungs. Your child may develop it after a cold or flu.

How are babies and children affected by pneumonia?

The symptoms of pneumonia will vary depending on the age of the child and the cause of the infection. A child with pneumonia will find it difficult to breathe, and will have a high temperature (above 38C or 100.4F). They may also cough.

What causes pneumonia in children?

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria or by a virus.

  • Viruses are a common cause of pneumonia in young children. The most common viral cause is usually respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or influenza (flu) type A or B.
  • The most common bacterial cause is a type of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia in children?

Children can develop pneumonia at any age, but it is more common in babies and younger children.

Most children can fight pneumonia but some children can become very ill, even if they have no previous or underlying health problems. This is more likely if their immune system is weak.

They symptoms of pneumonia in children may appear suddenly, or develop gradually over a few days.

Symptoms of pneumonia in babies

In newborns and babies under 1 month, look out for:

  • struggling to breathe - they may be grunting or moving their head up and down with each breath
  • drawing the muscles under their chest in when they breathe so it looks like they are breathing with their tummies
  • breathing fast
  • stopping breathing (apnoea)
  • not feeding properly
  • no wet nappies for 12 hours or more
  • a fever - or a temperature that goes up and down a lot
  • irritability and sleeping badly
  • blue skin inside the lips or under the tongue

As well as the symptoms above, babies over 1 month old might also:

  • cough a lot, although the cough can be soft
  • have difficulty breathing and draw the muscles under their chest in when they breathe
  • breathe loudly and make ‘wheezy’ sounds

Symptoms of pneumonia in toddlers and older children

Older children with pneumonia will have the same symptoms as babies. There may also be extra signs to look out for.

Toddlers and older children may also:

  • complain of pain in their chest or tummy
  • vomit after coughing
  • refuse to eat or drink

Call 999 for urgent help if:

  • Your child’s breathing pauses for more than 20 seconds. This is really important for young or premature babies, as it might be the only symptom.
  • Your child has a fever and they are struggling to breathe. They may grunt or draw the muscles under their chest in when they breathe. This makes them look like they are breathing with their tummies.
  • The colour of your baby's skin inside the lips or under the tongue turns blue.

We’ve got more information about when to visit your doctor and when to call 999.

How is pneumonia diagnosed in children?

Your doctor will ask you questions and examine your child. They will:

  • take their temperature
  • check for fast breathing or low oxygen saturation
  • listen to their chest

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria or a virus, but it is almost impossible to separate the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia and viral pneumonia in very young children.

Pneumonia or bronchiolitis? 

The symptoms of bronchiolitis and pneumonia are very similar, especially in children up to 2 years old.  Your doctor will find it difficult to make a firm diagnosis. The focus should be on treating your child’s symptoms and oxygen levels.  

Find out more about getting medical help: 

Next: what are the treatments for pneumonia in children? >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.