Walking Pneumonia

You could have this common infection and not even know it

woman nursing a cold at home
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A cough and congestion you just can't seem to shake could be the symptoms of an, especially persistent and lingering cold. Or they could mean you've got something called atypical pneumonia, commonly referred to as walking pneumonia. The term itself may sound like an oxymoron: Is it really possible to have something as serious as a lung infection and not feel awful enough to take to bed?

In fact, it is. The symptoms of walking pneumonia can be so mild that a person who has it may feel miserable, but not sick enough to see a doctor, much less stay home from work or stop going about her daily routine. Walking pneumonia is fairly common too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says an estimated 2 million people in the United States come down with walking pneumonia each year.

If walking pneumonia doesn't make you feel ill enough to stay home sick, is it OK to ignore it? Not exactly. Although it often will clear up on its own in time, walking pneumonia can get worse or lead to other complications, such as a more serious form of pneumonia. Here are other things it's important to know about walking pneumonia.

What Causes Walking Pneumonia?

Walking pneumonia most often is associated with Mycoplasma pneumonia, a bacterium that can infect the lungs or other parts of the respiratory system.

Similar to other respiratory diseases, including the common cold, walking pneumonia is spread when a person who’s sick sneezes or coughs and people nearby inhale the airborne water droplets—along with the pathogens they contain. Kids often pick up Mycoplasma pneumonia at school and bring it home, where it infects other people in the family.

The incubation period—the amount of time from when a person is exposed to the bacterium until she starts getting ill—is usually between one and four weeks.

Besides a cough and congestion, the symptoms of walking pneumonia can include fever, headache, a sore throat, and fatigue. They may come on more gradually than symptoms of more serious forms of pneumonia.

Treating Atypical Pneumonia

Although walking pneumonia often goes away on its own, it may get better faster if it's treated with an antibiotic. There are several types of antibiotics that work against Mycoplasma pneumonia, but the bacterium has become resistant to some others, according to the CDC.

Besides (or instead of) an antibiotic, it may be helpful to take an over-the-counter medication to treat your symptoms. Be careful about taking any sort of cough suppressant, though. When you have any type of pneumonia, suppressing a cough can make it more difficult to get mucus out of your lungs, increasing the chance that pneumonia will worsen or last longer.

It can take several weeks, or even months, to recover completely from walking pneumonia. If you start feeling worse instead of better, call your doctor. You may have developed a more serious type of pneumonia or other infection—one that won't be as easy to walk away from.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Mycoplasma Pneumonia Infection." Feb 7, 2017.

Cleveland Clinic. “Atypical Pneumonia (Walking Pneumonia).” Apr 1, 2015.