What Is Viral Pneumonia?

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Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs; it is very common. The condition can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungi. The symptoms and severity of pneumonia can vary greatly, depending on many factors such as the underlying cause as well as a person’s age and general health.

Pneumonia is considered airborne. This means it can be spread by coughing or sneezing; it can also be spread by breathing in infected airborne nasal or throat secretions.

Some people spread pneumonia without having any symptoms of the disease; these people are referred to as carriers. A common question people ask about pneumonia is whether it is a virus. The answer is no. Pneumonia is an infectious condition of the lungs that can be caused by different viruses as well as by other causes such as bacteria.

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Viral Pneumonia Symptoms

Common symptoms of viral pneumonia include:

  • Cough
  • Dyspnea (difficulty breathing)
  • Tachypnea (an increased breathing rate)
  • Fever

Other symptoms a person with viral pneumonia may experience include 

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness and aches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bluish tinge to the lips from low oxygen levels
  • Sore throat or headache, depending on the virus that is causing pneumonia

Symptoms of viral pneumonia usually develop over several days; early symptoms may include a fever, cough, headache, and muscle pain. By the second or third day, symptoms often worsen with the development of a severe cough and shortness of breath. A high fever may develop.

Symptoms by Age Group

Viral pneumonia symptoms tend to differ depending on a person’s age. Differences in symptoms by age group may include:

  • Young children: This group normally has mild symptoms that gradually worsen; they often develop audible wheezing because their airways are smaller than those of adults. Children can present with bluish lips from lack of oxygen as well as a poor appetite.
  • Elderly adults: People more than 65 years of age often experience abnormally low body temperatures; they also have symptoms such as dizziness and confusion.


There are many underlying causes of viral pneumonia, including:


Influenza (the flu) is a very contagious viral disease and is easily spread from one person to another when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Influenza is a common cause of pneumonia, particularly in those who are elderly and in kids under 2. In most instances, influenza does not result in pneumonia. But when it does cause pneumonia, the symptoms can be severe and deadly.

According to the American Lung Association, flu and pneumonia were the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2016.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

RSV is an infection that commonly affects the upper respiratory system. It is usually mild, but in infants and those with compromised immune systems, it can cause severe respiratory symptoms. The infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia.


Some people who get coronavirus develop severe pneumonia in both lungs. A 2021 study found that pneumonia caused by COVID-19 caused a type of pneumonia that was more severe and lasted longer. The study also found that pneumonia caused by COVID-19 caused more damage than pneumonia caused by other viruses.

Risk Factors

People who are most at risk for viral pneumonia include:

  • Children under 2
  • Any person age 65 or older
  • Pregnant persons
  • Those with certain types of health conditions
  • Those who reside in nursing homes
  • People who smoke
  • Those who live in very crowded homes


Because the symptoms of pneumonia can be so varied, it can be difficult to diagnose the condition. Diagnostic measures to identify whether a person has pneumonia and, if so, finding the underlying cause include:

  • A thorough medical history to attain information about signs and symptoms and how they started
  • A questionnaire to explore possible exposure to various pathogens (germs that cause illness)
  • A physical examination to listen to your lungs. Pneumonia often causes audible lung sounds such as crackles, wheezes, and rumbling sounds when you breathe in or out.
  • Diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis and find out more about the cause of the infection


Diagnostic tests for viral pneumonia may include:

  • Blood tests: These are used to confirm the presence and severity of the infection and identify the pathogen that is causing the illness.
  • Arterial blood gas test: This blood test is used to measure the level of oxygen saturation in the body; the sample is usually taken from the wrist. An arterial blood gas test is more accurate than a pulse oximetry test in evaluating how well the lungs oxygenate the body.
  • Chest X-ray: A common method of diagnosing pneumonia, this test involves taking images of the lungs to identify how severe and widespread the inflammation is.
  • Pulse oximetry: This test measures the level of oxygen in the blood. Pneumonia can cause low oxygen levels by preventing the lungs from functioning properly.
  • Sputum test: A sample of sputum (mucous) is taken in this test after a person coughs and spits the mucous onto a medium; this is then sent to a lab for microscopic identification of the causative pathogen.
  • CT scan of the chest: This gives the diagnostician a better view of the lungs than a chest X-ray. A CT scan utilizes computer technology to produce sharp, detailed images of the body.

Viral Pneumonia Treatment

Treatment for viral pneumonia is nonspecific. Often, there is no treatment; rather, the illness is allowed to run its course. Treatment may include a healthy diet, an increase in fluid intake, and getting plenty of rest. But when symptoms are severe, treatment may include:

  • Medication (such as ibuprofen or Tylenol) to treat a high fever
  • Medication to treat a severe cough
  • Oxygen therapy (if lab tests show that the blood oxygen level is low)
  • Pain relievers
  • Antiviral medications (if you have pneumonia from the flu) such as Rapivab (peramivir), Relenza (zanamivir), Tamiflu (oseltamivir), or Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil)

There Is No Cure for Viral Pneumonia

Antiviral medications are given to reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of illness; they do not cure viral pneumonia.


Getting vaccinated for the flu each year is one of the most effective ways to prevent viral pneumonia. Other preventative measures include:

  • Frequent handwashing
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Adopting healthy lifestyle habits
7 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.
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  2. American Lung Association. Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Causes pneumonia.

  4. American Lung Association. What is the connection between influenza and pneumonia?

  5. Northwestern. Why COVID-19 pneumonia lasts longer, causes more damage than typical pneumonia.

  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. What is pneumonia?

  7. American Lung Association. Preventing pneumonia.

By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer's research.