Pneumonia Explained


Published: 01 October 2019

Pneumonia is an acute respiratory infection that impacts one or both lungs. It can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi (WHO 2019; Normandin et al. 2019; Health Direct 2018).

Air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) become inflamed and fill with fluid or pus (Normandin et al. 2019). When a person has pneumonia, breathing is painful and oxygen intake is limited (WHO 2019).

There are multiple types of pneumonia: one of the most common and life threatening-types is pneumococcal pneumonia (Lung Foundation Australia n.d.).

Pneumonia ranges in severity from a mild illness to life-threatening. Anyone can contract pneumonia, but babies, young children and older people are particularly susceptible to the dangers of this disease (Healthdirect 2018; Better Health Channel 2018).

woman with pneumonia symptoms coughing
Pneumonia can be caused by a cold or a bout of the flu, during which germs spread in the alveoli.

How Serious is Pneumonia?

It is estimated that there are over 77,000 hospitalisations of pneumonia each year (Poulos et al. 2014; Medianet 2019).

There were 4,269 pneumonia deaths in Australia in 2017, making it the 9th leading cause of death that year (ABS 2018; Medianet 2019).

Causes of Pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused by a cold or a bout of the flu, during which germs spread in the alveoli (Lung Foundation Australia n.d.).

Pneumonia is commonly spread by inhaling infected droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze of an infected person, it can also be spread via blood (Lung Foundation Australia n.d.).

With correct treatment, improvement in health is usually observed within seven to ten days (Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Better Health Channel 2018).


  • Coughing;
  • Fever, chills, or sweating;
  • Breathing difficulties;
  • Fatigue or general malaise;
  • Little to no appetite;
  • Chest pain;
  • Abdominal pain or aches;
  • Blue colouring around mouth (cyanosis); and
  • Nausea, diarrhoea, or vomiting.

(Health Direct 2018; Better Health Channel 2018; Mayo Clinic 2018; Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Healthy WA n.d.)

Symptoms of Pneumonia in Children

  • Lethargy;
  • Irritability;
  • Chest pain;
  • Abdominal aches or pain;
  • Fever
  • Coughing and difficulty breathing;
  • Little to no appetite;
  • Pallor.

(RCH 2018; Healthy WA n.d.)

child with pneumonia symptoms is lethargic
Pneumonia is commonly spread by inhaling infected droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze of an infected person.

Who is Most at Risk of Pneumonia?

  • Infants and very young children;
  • People over the age of 65 years;
  • People who have had an organ transplant;
  • People who have been hospitalised;
  • First Nations People with medical conditions, and who live in remote communities;
  • People with lung conditions including asthma, emphysema, or cystic fibrosis;
  • People with a chronic disease;
  • People with a compromised immune system or HIV/AIDS; and
  • Smokers.

(Healthy WA n.d.; Mayo Clinic 2018; Lung Foundation Australia n.d.)

Types of Pneumonia

Bacterial Pneumonia

  • Presents with rust- or green-coloured phlegm;
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia is the most deadly form of bacterial pneumonia. It is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae;
  • Healthy people are able to carry Streptococcus pneumoniae in their nose and throat, it mostly does not cause illness, except in vulnerable groups.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Better Health Channel 2018)

Viral Pneumonia

  • Caused by a virus (including influenza);
  • Symptoms are flu-like;
  • Responsible for roughly half of all pneumonia cases.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Better Health Channel 2018)

Mycoplasma Pneumonia

  • Caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae;
  • Presents with white phlegm, vomiting and nausea;
  • Pneumonia caused by mycoplasma organisms is often mild, but recovery may take longer.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Better Health Channel 2018)

Fungal Pneumonia

  • A less common type of pneumonia;
  • Generally occurs in people with chronic health problems and/or vulnerable immune systems;
  • Fungal pneumonia is caused by breathing in fungal spores.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; WebMD 2018)


The following is standard procedure for diagnosing pneumonia:

  • General examination;
  • Nose and throat swab;
  • Chest X-rays; and
  • Blood tests.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Healthy WA n.d.)


  • Rest (sitting up is recommended over lying down);
  • Medications may include antibiotics, antiviral medication, or analgesics;
  • Hospital admission for at-risk groups; and
  • Have plenty of fluids, orally or intravenously.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Better Health Channel 2018; Mayo Clinic 2018)

Pneumonia Prevention

Immunisation is a proven strategy for reducing the chance of contracting pneumonia (WHO 2018; Lung Foundation Australia n.d.) The pneumococcal vaccine is free under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) Schedule for people aged 65 and above, Indigenous Australians aged 50 years and over, Indigenous Australians aged 15 - 49 years who are medically at risk, and infants under 12 months (Australian Government 2019).

As well as immunisation, advise patients to abide by the following:

  • Practice good hand hygiene to minimise the transmission of infection;
  • Quit smoking and avoid smoking areas;
  • Keeping their immune system strong by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and getting sufficient sleep.

(Lung Foundation Australia n.d.; Mayo Clinic 2018)

person smoking is at risk of pneumonia
Smokers are at a higher risk of pneumonia than non-smokers.

Additional Resources

Multiple Choice Questions

Q1. Pneumonia was responsible for how many deaths in 2017?

  1. 4,260
  2. 9,420
  3. 4,269
  4. 9,240

Q2. True or false: Fluid intake is part of the treatment process for pneumonia.

  1. True
  2. False

Q3. Which of the following is a common symptom of pneumonia?

  1. Increased urinary output
  2. Fever
  3. Increased energy
  4. Increased appetite

(Answers: c, a, b)


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Ausmed Editorial Team

Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile