What to Know About Pneumonia and COVID-19

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Pneumonia is a lung infection that can range from mild to severe. It is commonly caused by bacteria or viruses but can also be due to fungal infections. In the United States, common causes of viral pneumonia are influenza (the flu) and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

As with all COVID-19 research, studies into the connection between pneumonia and COVID-19 are ongoing.

This article explores the connection between COVID-19 and pneumonia.

person sick in bed

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Pneumonia and COVID-19 Risk

Many studies into disease have investigated preexisting health conditions that could increase the risk of infection from coronavirus. Many of these studies use health information of people who had COVID-19 to help us better understand what might put us at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

One 2021 study found that people with a history of pneumonia have an increased risk of death from COVID-19, and this risk is greatest among people ages 65–85.

Researchers have concluded that having had pneumonia in the past is the second greatest predictor of death from COVID-19, with advanced age being the greatest predictor.

It's important to note, however, that people who have had a single case of pneumonia in the past are less likely than people with chronic lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to die after coming down with COVID-19.

The muddled association between cause and effect suggests that more research is needed into the relationship between a previous pneumonia diagnosis and the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

In another study of hospitalized patients, about 91% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 also tested positive for pneumonia. And those who were diagnosed with severe COVID-19 symptoms had a 10% greater chance of developing pneumonia than those who did not experience severe symptoms. Data from this study suggest that COVID-19 can contribute to pneumonia secondary to COVID-19, especially when people have severe COVID-19 symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, and people over age 65 are at the highest risk. This means it is important for people who are older to reduce their risk of exposure to coronavirus and, in turn, avoid developing pneumonia secondary to COVID-19.

Researchers have identified factors that increase the risk of dying from pneumonia secondary to COVID-19. These risk factors include:

  • Being age 65 years or older
  • Having preexisting and concurrent cardiovascular (relating to the heart and its blood vessels) or cerebrovascular (relating to the brain and its blood vessels) diseases
  • Having a compromised immune system
  • Having heart injury from heart disease

All of these can overlap with risk factors for severe illness, complications, and death from COVID-19. Therefore, the research shows that medical conditions that make people vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19 also contribute to their developing pneumonia secondary to COVID-19.

Of note, despite the emphasis in the media on death from COVID-19, it is important to keep in mind that about 81% of COVID-19 cases are mild, while only 14% are severe. The risk of developing pneumonia from COVID-19 is uncommon among the general population.

Complications of Pneumonia Caused by COVID-19

Because pneumonia causes the alveoli in the lungs to fill with pus and fluid, breathing can be painful and difficult.

Pneumonia can cause serious health complications, including:

Because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, it would make sense that having COVID-19 would cause lung complications. As of yet, not enough data are available to support this conclusion.

However, as noted above, research does show that COVID-19 can cause severe illness, including pneumonia that can be fatal. A 2020 study by the CDC found that among a group of people with COVID-19, about 70% had complications from pneumonia. Also, people with COVID-19 were twice as likely to get pneumonia compared to people with the flu.

Regarding long-lasting complications from COVID-19, it is still too soon to say for sure whether "long-haulers" (people with long-term effects of COVID-19) are more likely to have underlying chronic medical conditions.

Pneumonia and Long COVID

In a Q&A about lingering COVID-19 symptoms, the Cleveland Clinic notes that it is seemingly random who experiences long-lasting symptoms (called "long COVID") and who doesn't. So, it’s not quite clear whether having pneumonia in the past is connected with having long COVID.

As a way to find answers, in 2021, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched an ongoing study into the underlying biological causes of prolonged symptoms and what makes some people more likely to get long COVID.

Pneumonia Treatments and COVID-19

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), bacterial pneumonia should be treated with antibiotics, which are usually prescribed at a health center.

If your symptoms are severe, it is important that you call your healthcare provider—or seek immediate help—to get the proper treatment. Severe symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Bluish color in your lips or fingertips
  • A high fever
  • Cough with mucus that is severe or worsening

Although COVID-19 is caused by a virus, people with the illness can still develop a superinfection, which is a reinfection or secondary infection caused by bacteria. If this happens, antibiotics will be given to the patient. In order to prevent antibiotic resistance, when antibiotics become useless against bacteria, some researchers have suggested following “antimicrobial stewardship principles” (guidelines around antibiotic use).

Moreover, because severe cases of pneumonia may require treatment at a hospital, healthcare providers must consider the chance that a patient may acquire coinfections in hospitals. So, to be safe and not add to superinfection among hospitalized patients, antibiotics are warranted.

Antibiotics and COVID-19

Antibiotics are still the go-to treatment for bacterial pneumonia, and the pandemic does not change that. However, it is best to speak to your healthcare provider about concerns you have regarding your pneumonia treatment during the pandemic.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get the vaccine if I have pneumonia?

Yes. The COVID-19 vaccine can be given to most people with underlying medical conditions.

The CDC states that as long as you haven't had an immediate severe allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine or any of the ingredients in the vaccine, you can still get the vaccine even with an underlying medical condition like pneumonia. In fact, it is important to get the COVID-19 vaccine since COVID-19 illness can potentially cause serious complications on top of pneumonia. Talk to your healthcare provider if you still have concerns about getting the vaccine.

Is it safe to take antibiotics before or after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. The COVID-19 vaccine does not interact with antibiotics or influence their course. If your healthcare provider prescribes you antibiotics, consider them safe to take when getting your COVID-19 vaccine.

How high is my risk of being exposed to COVID-19 if I seek medical treatment for pneumonia?

Your risk of exposure to coronavirus is outweighed by the benefit of going to your healthcare provider for pneumonia treatment. Nonetheless, it is critical to follow public health guidelines like wearing a mask, social distancing (keeping at least six feet between you and others), and washing your hands when seeking treatment at your healthcare provider’s office to reduce your risk of being exposed to COVID-19. 

How to Stay Safe

Given that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness just as pneumonia is, it is important to do your best to minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19, which could potentially cause severe respiratory complications. 

The same precautions you've been taking to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic will, of course, keep you safe from developing pneumonia secondary to COVID-19, too. Be diligent about wearing a well-fitting mask, social distancing, and washing your hands.

A few other tips to keep in mind for recovery from pneumonia are to:

  • Control your fever with NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin) or acetaminophen (but do not give aspirin to children).
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help loosen secretions and to cough up phlegm.
  • Avoid taking cough medicines before talking to your healthcare provider first because coughing is one of the ways your body is working to get rid of the pneumonia infection.
  • Drink warm beverages like tea or hot water.
  • Use a humidifier, and take steamy baths or showers to help open your airway and ease your breathing.   
  • Stay away from smoke (including tobacco smoke and wood smoke) to allow your lungs to heal themselves. If you are a smoker, this would be a good time to think about quitting.
  • Get rest. Stay home and take it easy for a while until you feel better and stronger.

These are all things you can do from the safety and comfort of your own home. Taking care of yourself and seeking medical care as needed can help keep you safe from COVID-19.

A Word From Verywell

Pneumonia is a common lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It can cause mild symptoms to severe illness. You may be wondering about getting pneumonia from COVID-19. To prevent both, it is important to practice good hygiene.

We understand how tiring it can be to hear the same advice over and over to stay safe: Wash your hands, wear a mask, and keep your distance from others. But these simple practices work not only to lower your risk of getting COVID-19 but also boost your chances of keeping unwelcome viruses, bacteria, and fungi out of your lungs so you can—quite literally—breathe easily.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed. As new research becomes available, we’ll update this article. For the latest on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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