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How is pneumonia diagnosed and treated?

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

A doctor can often diagnose pneumonia based on the symptoms and by examining your chest. But you may need to have a chest X-ray to confirm that you have it.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you have pneumonia or another kind of chest infection. If it’s not clear, your GP may do a blood test or take a sputum sample to help decide if you need antibiotics.

How is pneumonia treated?

Pneumonia can be serious so it’s important to get treatment quickly. The main treatment for pneumonia is antibiotics, along with rest and drinking plenty of water. If you have chest pain, you can take pain killers such as paracetamol.

Treatment depends on how severe your pneumonia is. Treatment with antibiotics should be started as soon as possible after diagnosis. If you’re admitted to hospital, this should be within 4 hours of admission.

Mild pneumonia

If you have mild pneumonia, you may be able to manage it at home with treatment from your GP, especially if you have support from family and friends. Your GP will prescribe a 5-day course of antibiotics, which you’ll probably take as tablets. If you don’t start to feel better after 3 days, tell your GP – you may need a longer course of antibiotics.

More severe pneumonia

Some people are too ill to be treated at home and need to go to hospital.

If you’re too ill to drink and take tablets, you can have fluids and antibiotics through a drip in your arm. You’ll also be given oxygen if you need it, and the hospital staff can regularly check your temperature and breathing.

You’ll usually be given 2 different kinds of antibiotics at the same time, usually for 5 to 7 days but possibly up to 10 days. But you won’t necessarily have to stay in hospital that long.

People who are in hospital for other medical problems and then develop pneumonia have a high risk of becoming very ill. They may need different, more powerful antibiotics.

It’s very important to finish your full course of antibiotics – don’t stop taking your antibiotics before the end of the course, even if you start to feel better.

Complications caused by pneumonia

Pneumonia can sometimes have complications. They include:

  • pleurisy – where the pleura, the thin linings between your lungs and ribcage, become inflamed, leading to chest pain. If you have pleurisy, you are more likely to develop fluid on the lungs.
  • fluid on the lungs - about 1 in 10 people with pneumonia develop fluid around the lung, called a pleural effusion which can become infected. This may require a sample of the fluid to be taken by inserting a needle between the ribs under local anaesthetic, and if infected is likely to need a longer course of antibiotics. Occasionally, a tube is inserted into the lung to remove fluid as well.
  • a lung abscess – a rare complication that’s mostly seen in people with a serious pre-existing illness or history of alcohol misuse.
  • blood poisoning, also called septicaemia - this is where infection spreads from the lungs to the blood stream. This can cause low blood pressure and a severe illness that might need intensive care treatment.
  • respiratory failure – this is where pneumonia causes low levels of oxygen in the blood even in people given oxygen. This might also require intensive care treatment.

The vast majority of people recover from pneumonia and return to good health. However, pneumonia can be very serious and some people with severe pneumonia don’t survive, despite the best available care. Those who are elderly or have other health problems are most at risk of severe or fatal pneumonia.

Next: recovering from pneumonia >

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Last medically reviewed: October 2019. Due for review: October 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.