Can You Die From Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can be severe and life-threatening in some cases

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with pneumonia, you may be wondering if this lung infection can be fatal. Can you die from pneumonia? The sad answer is yes, you can. 

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that fills them with fluid. If the air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) fill up with fluids, it’s harder for them to do their job of transferring oxygen into the blood and getting rid of carbon dioxide that’s built up in the body.

Woman sick with cough, may have pneumonia


RuslanDashinsky / Getty

Pneumonia may develop after you come down with a virus like a cold or flu, or it can happen without any previous illness. The key symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • A cough that brings up mucus or pus
  • Fever and chills

Pneumonia is a very common infection. It can impact anyone and can vary from mild to severe. For some people, it can also be quite serious—even deadly. In the United States, pneumonia is responsible for about 1 million hospitalizations a year, and 50,000 deaths. It kills more children under 5 than any other infection.

This article will cover who is at high risk of serious complications from pneumonia, different types of pneumonia, how pneumonia can become deadly, and how to avoid getting pneumonia.

High-Risk Groups

Most healthy people are able to recover from pneumonia relatively quickly and without complications. But there are certain high-risk groups and health conditions that increase the risk of death from pneumonia. These include:

  • The very young (under 2 years old)
  • Over age 65 
  • People whose immune systems aren’t working well, including those who have autoimmune diseases, who have had an organ transplant, or who are on steroids or chemotherapy
  • Those with pre-existing medical conditions of the heart or lungs, including heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • Smokers and drug users
  • Those with environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, including pollution, toxic fumes, or secondhand smoke
  • Pregnant people
  • People in the hospital or those lying on their backs a lot

Those with multiple risk factors increase their risk even higher.

Not everyone in these groups will end up with severe pneumonia and die. But they are at an increased risk of being sicker, needing to be hospitalized, needing intravenous medications, and developing severe complications from the infection.

Types of Pneumonia

Pneumonia infections can be caused by germs like viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Bacterial pneumonia is more likely to lead to death than viral or fungal pneumonia.

Bacterial Pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria. It can show up on its own or follow an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. The most common bacteria that causes pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumococcal pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. It tends to be more serious and is more likely to require hospital care.

Viral Pneumonia

Viral pneumonia is a lung infection caused by viruses like the cold and flu virus, the SARS CoV-2 virus, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a common cause of pneumonia in young children, while the flu is more common in older adults.

Pneumonia caused by a virus is typically less serious and less deadly than bacterial pneumonia but can be serious and deadly for those in high-risk categories. This is especially true if the viral infection makes a way for bacteria to enter the lungs, called a secondary infection.

Antiviral medications are used to treat viral pneumonia if it is caused by the flu.

Fungal Pneumonia

Fungal pneumonia is less common than bacterial or viral pneumonia because it typically infects people with other conditions or weakened immune systems. It can be treated with antifungal medications and is less deadly than bacterial pneumonia.

Atypical Pneumonia

There are a few other “atypical” types of pneumonia that you may have heard of. These infections are “atypical” not because they’re uncommon but because they have different signs and symptoms and react differently to the usual treatments for pneumonia. They include:

  • Walking pneumonia is caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria and some other organisms. It usually hits those under 40 and is typically mild.
  • Legionnaires’ disease is a type of bacterial pneumonia that is not spread from person to person but through tainted water. 

Aspiration Pneumonia

It’s possible to develop pneumonia when a foreign object enters the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia is caused when liquid, food, vomit, or saliva enters the lungs, eventually causing an infection. This can happen in people who have difficulty swallowing, but also in those who use certain drugs.

Community-Acquired vs. Healthcare-Associated

There are two different ways to get pneumonia which may impact what kinds of germs make you sick. If you’ve picked up pneumonia during daily life, it’s called community-acquired pneumonia. If you caught it while in a hospital setting, long-term care facility, or other extended-stay facility, it’s called healthcare-associated pneumonia. 

The germs that cause these two different types of pneumonia are different. Those from a hospital setting are more likely to be antibiotic-resistant, which means they do not respond to treatment with certain antibiotics. This makes them harder to beat.

How Does Pneumonia Lead To Death?

The most common complication from pneumonia is a condition called pleural effusion. This is the buildup of fluid in the membranes around the lungs inside the chest cavity. It causes pain and impairs your ability to breathe. These and other complications of pneumonia can lead to a worsening of pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

Treatment

If you’re diagnosed with pneumonia, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics or antivirals. If your pneumonia is severe, you may be hospitalized and receive these drugs intravenously through a tube in your vein, and you may receive help breathing. 

Severe pneumonia can be deadly because of the severe complications that can result from a serious infection. These complications include:

Severe pneumonia, especially if left untreated, can have long-lasting repercussions on your lungs. It can influence your susceptibility to infections in the future and decrease your ability to exercise and quality of life. Make sure to get treated promptly for pneumonia if you aren’t getting better. 

Prevention 

While most people will catch a cold or the flu every year, some infections that cause pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines. There are specifically a few vaccines you should get to avoid catching pneumonia:

Other than vaccines, make sure to follow proper cold and flu season hygiene. In many cases, the infection that causes pneumonia spreads easily when people cough, sneeze, breathe, or touch—even if they aren’t showing any signs of infection.

Wash your hands regularly, and use sanitizer if you can’t. Sanitize any common surfaces that you come into contact with. Wear a mask if you’re around people who have been sick. Staying home yourself while sick is also important to stop these infections from spreading.

Last but not least, take good care of yourself. Stay healthy by being active and eating well. Avoid smoking or drinking too much. Get good sleep. This is generally important but is even more essential when you’re already sick with a cold or other illness to lessen the likelihood of developing pneumonia. 

If you're at high risk for pneumonia, or if you have a lingering cold, cough, or flu, make sure to monitor yourself for concerning symptoms. If you’re having any of these symptoms, especially if you’re at high risk for pneumonia, contact your doctor:

  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Chest pain 
  • High fever
  • Bluish cast to lips or nail beds
  • Sudden changes in mental awareness in older people
  • Severe cough that is not improving

Summary

Pneumonia can lead to death, especially for people who are in high-risk groups. Bacterial pneumonia is the type most likely to lead to hospitalization. But viral and fungal pneumonia can also cause serious complications or death.

Several vaccines can lessen the risk of serious illness from pneumonia. Maintaining good health and taking precautions to prevent the spread of infections can reduce your risks.

A Word From Verywell

Early detection and prevention are often the keys to a smooth recovery from pneumonia. Make sure you take time to see a health professional and get the proper treatment if you think you might have pneumonia. If you’ve been sick or are at high risk for pneumonia, keep an eye out for the right signs and symptoms.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Lung Association. Learn about pneumonia. Updated October 23, 2020. 

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Pneumonia: symptoms, treatment, causes & prevention. Updated June 15, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control. Pneumonia. Updated October 28, 2020.

  4. American Lung Association. What causes pneumonia? Updated October 23, 2020.

  5. American Lung Association. Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis. Updated March 11, 2021. 

  6. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Pneumonia

  7. MedlinePlus. Pneumonia. Updated January 4, 2021. 

  8. American Lung Association. Preventing pneumonia. Updated October 23, 2020. 

  9. Centers for Disease Control. Pneumococcal vaccination: What everyone should know. Updated August 7, 2020.