Walking Pneumonia vs. Pneumonia: What Are the Differences?

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The terms "walking pneumonia" and "pneumonia" are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two conditions are not quite the same.

"Walking pneumonia" is a colloquial term that is used to describe milder cases of pneumonia. Also known as atypical pneumonia, walking pneumonia does not usually cause the symptoms of a high fever and a productive cough that often characterize pneumonia.

Still, walking pneumonia should not be overlooked, as both walking pneumonia and pneumonia can cause serious illness and hospitalization if left untreated.

This article will help you learn about the differences between the two types of pneumonia. 

wrapped in blanket - sick

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Symptoms

The symptoms of walking pneumonia and pneumonia resemble each other but differ in their severity.

Pneumonia symptoms vary among children, adults, and older people, but in most cases you will experience one or more of the following:

  • High fever 
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain on deep inspiration
  • Cough (often with phlegm)
  • Night sweats
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Weight loss

The symptoms of walking pneumonia are generally milder than those of pneumonia.

Your symptoms of sore throat, headache, malaise (general feeling of not being well), and low-grade fever may be so mild that they may not interrupt your day-to-day routine. But don’t be fooled: Walking pneumonia can make you feel terrible, and the best way to recover is to take care of yourself and address your symptoms.

Causes

The germs that cause walking pneumonia and pneumonia are the same. Viruses, bacteria, or fungi that affect the lungs can trigger either condition, but there are certain pathogens that are more common in one versus the other.

The following are the most common bacterial causes of walking pneumonia:

The most common causes of pneumonia are viruses, namely the influenza virus (the flu), and bacteria.

Whether your pneumonia is community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) or hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP) largely determines the type of bacteria that will cause your infection.

Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common bacterial cause of CAP, but other common germs include: 

  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Chlamydia pneumoniae
  • Legionella
  • Gram-negative bacilli
  • Staphylococcus aureus

Viruses can also cause CAP. In fact, viral infection, like having the flu, puts you at higher risk of getting bacterial pneumonia, which is often more severe than viral. Aside from the influenza virus, the following viruses can also cause CAP: 

  • Parainfluenza virus
  • Echovirus, adenovirus
  • Coxsackievirus

HAP is mainly caused by bacteria, especially aerobic gram-negative bacilli, such as:

  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)
  • Klebsiella pneumoniae
  • Acinetobacter species

Diagnosis

Walking pneumonia is usually diagnosed through a physical examination and does not require the same extensive testing that is used in the diagnosis of pneumonia.

Your symptoms, combined with a crackling sound or wheezing detected by your provider when listening to your lungs with a stethoscope, are often enough to make a diagnosis. But your healthcare provider may order chest X-rays and/or test samples of your mucus to confirm your diagnosis.

Additionally, these tests can help differentiate between pneumonia and walking pneumonia and rule out other potential causes of your symptoms.

Treatment

Walking pneumonia is usually mild and goes away on its own with:

  • Rest
  • Increased fluid intake
  • The use of over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers and oral decongestants

Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics if they believe that a bacterium is the cause. 

The best way to manage your pneumonia is to identify the underlying cause and provide medications that are best suited to eliminate the root cause of your lung infection.

Antibiotics and antifungals are the mainstays of treatment for pneumonia caused by bacteria or fungi, respectively.

Increasing your fluid intake and using cough medicine, decongestants, and fever and pain reducers may also be helpful. However, they should not be used in place of antibiotics or antifungals when bacteria or fungi are the cause. 

Prevention

When it comes to prevention, the main focus is to avoid infection by the most common germs circulating. This is the same for preventing both walking pneumonia and pneumonia.

The best ways to protect yourself are to:

  • Get vaccinated: Getting vaccinated strengthens your immune system and increases the body’s ability to fight infections.
  • Practice good hygiene: One of the easiest ways to protect yourself is by eliminating potentially harmful germs and making sure you don’t spread them to another person if you do come into contact with them. Some useful techniques include washing your hands regularly—with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds—disinfecting surfaces that are touched a lot (with alcohol-based products), and using proper sneeze and cough etiquette (that is sneezing into a tissue or your elbow sleeve).
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity and diabetes are often tied to overweight and rapid weight gain. These conditions compromise the immune system, making you vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections.
  • Avoid sick people: If possible, avoid people who are sick. This is even more important for young children and older adults, who are at highest risk of getting sick. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible to keep from getting them ill, especially those in your family or friend circle who are most susceptible to illness.
  • Don’t smoke or use alcohol: Chronic smoking and alcohol use can compromise the immune system, lowering its ability to defend itself from the organisms that make you sick. Most healthcare providers believe it’s best to avoid these habits altogether, especially if your pneumonia risk is high. 

Summary

The terms "walking pneumonia" and "pneumonia" are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two are not quite the same. Walking pneumonia is usually less severe and is often caused by different viruses and bacteria. 

A Word From Verywell

When people think of pneumonia, the image of a severely ill person who lands in the hospital comes to mind, but walking pneumonia is very common and likely goes undetected due to its mild, cold-like symptoms.

Although walking pneumonia rarely leads to hospitalization or death in healthy people, it can cause serious complications in young children, older adults, and those who are immunocompromised. Even in generally healthy people, symptoms of walking pneumonia can make you feel miserable.

So don’t be fooled, if you are feeling any of the symptoms associated with pneumonia, see a healthcare provider immediately so you can jump-start your recovery.

4 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. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Pneumonia.

  2. BMJ Best Practices. Hospital-acquired pneumonia (non COVID-19).

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumonia can be prevented—vaccines can help.

  4. Simet SM, Sisson JH. Alcohol's effects on lung health and immunity. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):199-208.

By Shamard Charles, MD, MPH
Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.