Pneumonia | Causes, Prevention and Treatment

Pneumonia is a form of acute respiratory infection that affects the lungs. The lungs are made up of small sacs called alveoli, which fill with air when a healthy person breathes. When an individual develops this health condition, the alveoli are filled with pus and fluid, which makes breathing painful and limits oxygen intake.

Pneumonia | Prevention and Treatment of Pneumonia
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Pneumonia is the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide. It has killed 740 180 children under the age of 5 in 2019, accounting for 14% of all deaths of children under five years old but 22% of all deaths in children aged 1 to 5.

This health condition affects children and families everywhere, but deaths are highest in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Children can be protected from pneumonia, it can be prevented with simple interventions, and treated with low-cost, low-tech medication and care.


Pneumonia is caused by a number of infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria and fungi. The most common are:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae – the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in children;
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) – the second most common cause of bacterial form of the disease;
  • respiratory syncytial virus is the most common viral cause of this disease;
  • in infants infected with HIV, Pneumocystis jiroveci is one of the most common causes of the disease, responsible for at least one quarter of all pneumonia deaths in HIV-infected infants.


Pneumonia can be spread in a number of ways. The viruses and bacteria that are commonly found in a child’s nose or throat, can infect the lungs if they are inhaled. They may also spread via air-borne droplets from a cough or sneeze.

In addition, the disease may spread through blood, especially during and shortly after birth. More research needs to be done on the different pathogens causing the disease and the ways they are transmitted, as this is of critical importance for treatment and prevention.

Presenting features

The presenting features of viral and bacterial pneumonia are similar. However, the symptoms of viral form of the disease may be more numerous than the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia. In children under 5 years of age, who have cough and/or difficulty in breathing, with or without fever, the disease is diagnosed by the presence of either fast breathing or lower chest wall indrawing where their chest moves in or retracts during inhalation (in a healthy person, the chest expands during inhalation). Wheezing is more common in viral infections.

Depending on the severity of the disease, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Confusion, especially in older adults

Very severely ill infants may be unable to feed or drink and may also experience unconsciousness, hypothermia and convulsions.

Risk factors

While most healthy children can fight the infection with their natural defenses, children whose immune systems are compromised are at higher risk of developing the disease. A child’s immune system may be weakened by malnutrition or undernourishment, especially in infants who are not exclusively breastfed.

Pre-existing illnesses, such as symptomatic HIV infections and measles, also increase a child’s risk of contracting the disease.

The following environmental factors also increase a child’s susceptibility to the disease:

  • indoor air pollution caused by cooking and heating with biomass fuels (such as wood or dung)
  • living in crowded homes
  • parental smoking.


Pneumonia may be treated with antibiotics, if it is bacterial. The antibiotic of choice is amoxicillin dispersible tablets. Most cases of the disease require oral antibiotics, which are often prescribed at a health center. These cases can also be diagnosed and treated with inexpensive oral antibiotics at the community level by trained community health workers. Hospitalization is recommended only for severe cases of the disease.

Rest and plenty of hydration can also help people recover quicker, while people of all ages can reduce their risk of developing the disease condition by:

  • Get vaccinated: Immunization against Hib, pneumococcus, measles, influenza and whooping cough (pertussis) is the most effective way to prevent the disease.
  • Wash your hands: Maintain good hygiene and washing your hands frequently, especially when caring for others who are sick or after blowing your nose, will keep germs from spreading.
  • Address environmental factors: Reduce indoor air pollution by providing affordable clean indoor stoves and stop smoking.
  • Maintain healthy lifestyle: Eat a healthy diet, rest and get regular exercise to help you stay well.

Adequate nutrition is key to improving natural defenses, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.


Preventing pneumonia in children is an essential component of a strategy to reduce child mortality. Immunization against Hib, pneumococcus, measles and whooping cough (pertussis) is the most effective way to prevent the disease.

Adequate nutrition is key to improving children’s natural defenses, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. In addition to being effective in preventing pneumonia, it also helps to reduce the length of the illness if a child does become ill.

Addressing environmental factors such as indoor air pollution (by providing affordable clean indoor stoves, for example) and encouraging good hygiene in crowded homes also reduces the number of children who fall ill with the disease.

In children infected with HIV, the antibiotic cotrimoxazole is given daily to decrease the risk of contracting the disease.

Economic costs

The cost of antibiotic treatment for all children with the disease in 66 of the countdown to 2015 countries for maternal, newborn and child survival is estimated at around US$ 109 million per year. The price includes the antibiotics and diagnostics for management of the disease.

Some Major Facts about the Disease Condition

  • Pneumonia accounts for 14% of all deaths of children under 5 years old, killing 740 180 children in 2019
  • It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.
  • Pneumonia can be prevented by immunization, adequate nutrition, and by addressing environmental factors.
  • Forms of the disease that are caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, but only one third of children with pneumonia receive the antibiotics they need.

Response from the World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO and UNICEF integrated Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD) aims to accelerate control of the disease with a combination of interventions to protect, prevent, and treat pneumonia in children with actions to:

  • protect children from pneumonia including promoting exclusive breastfeeding and adequate complementary feeding;
  • prevent the disease with vaccinations, hand washing with soap, reducing household air pollution, HIV prevention and cotrimoxazole prophylaxis for HIV-infected and exposed children;
  • treat pneumonia focusing on making sure that every sick child has access to the right kind of care — either from a community-based health worker, or in a health facility if the disease is severe — and can get the antibiotics and oxygen they need to get well;

A number of countries including Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia have developed district, state and national plans to intensify actions for the control of pneumonia and diarrhoea. Many more have integrated diarrhoea and pneumonia specific action into their national child health and child survival strategies.

Effective diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia is critical to improve child survival. In order to meet the Sustainable Development Goal targets for SDG 3.2.1 – reducing child mortality – ending preventable diarrhoea and pneumonia-related deaths is an urgent priority.

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