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HomeYour HealthConditionsPneumococcal Pneumonia Facts about Pneumonia: Symptoms, Risks, Protecting Yourself & MoreFacts about Pneumonia: Symptoms, Risks, Protecting Yourself & More

Published on Sept, 2023

Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Imagine having a cough. Now imagine sharp pains in your chest every time you breathe in. You're feeling short of breath, feverish and very tired. This is what having pneumonia can feel like.

Pneumonia can be a mild or severe illness. It can be serious and life-threatening.1

While several germs, like flu viruses, can cause pneumonia, a bacteria, called “Streptococcus pneumoniae” is one of the most common.1  This is what we call “pneumococcal pneumonia”.2

Pneumonia can occur at anytime of the year. Community-acquired pneumonia, a type of pneumonia people can get when they’re not in hospital, can increase during winter months, during flu season.2  Pneumonia can follow a viral infection, such as cold or flu.1

Anyone, at any age, can get pneumonia.3 Very young children, older adults over 70 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with some chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at higher risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia.1,3

The good news is that there are things you can do to help prevent pneumonia and keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. Read below to learn more about the symptoms, causes, who are more vulnerable and what you can do to reduce the spread.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs. It is caused by different germs, usually bacteria or a virus and sometimes fungi.1  Our lungs are made up of lots of little air sacs (alveoli). Pneumonia causes these to become inflamed and fill with fluid and pus, making it harder to breath.1,4

In general, your body prevents these germs from reaching the air sacs in your lungs. But if your body is not able to fight off the germs, you can get pneumonia. Such as when your immune system is weakened or during a bout of cold or the flu.4

Pneumonia can be spread from person to person through physical contact, coughing and sneezing.3

What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Pneumonia?

People with pneumonia often have cold or flu symptoms before they start to get worse.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on factors such as your age, the type of pneumonia you have, or your overall health.1,3

The most common symptoms are:1,3

  • High fever and chills

  • Cough, sometimes with phlegm

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Chest pain

  • Fatigue

Pneumonia can also follow a bout of a cold or the flu.1 People can have symptoms of a cold or flu, that may become better, then start to get worse a few days or weeks after.1  If you or someone in your care is not recovering and symptoms get worse, it could be pneumonia.

In older people, fever and cough aren’t always present. In fact, confusion and disorientation can be the more common warning signs.5

What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia in older adults?

The common symptoms of pneumonia such as fever, cough and chills don't always appear in older and frail people. Warning signs can be quite non-specific making it difficult to diagnose.5 

Symptoms in older and frail people include:

  • Confusion or worsening confusion

  • Falls

  • Reduced appetite

  • Urinary incontinence

  • Tiredness

  • Rapid breathing

When to See Your Doctor

Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause severe complications, especially among older people and those with a risk condition. So, it is vital to get medical attention as soon as you think you, or someone in your care may have pneumonia.

See your doctor right away if you, or your child:

  • have a cold that doesn’t get better with rest and treatment, or, if the symptoms get worse
  • have severe symptoms such as chest pain, confusion or rapid breathing
  • have trouble breathing
  • your baby looks very ill, has a high fever, may not be feeding, and is breathing quickly

In severe cases, you or your child might need to go to the hospital.

Older adults are more than 5 times as likely to be hospitalised with pneumococcal pneumonia than younger adults.6

How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed? 

Your doctor will listen to the lungs for crackling or other abnormal sounds.4 If these are present, they may request a few other tests to confirm their diagnosis1,4. These include:

  • Chest X-ray to see what your lungs look like
  • A blood test to check for signs of infection
What Can Cause Pneumonia?

There are several kinds of germs that can cause pneumonia.1 They include:

  • Bacteria – examples are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae

  • Viruses – examples are influenza (commonly known as the flu), coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus

  • Fungi – these are a less common cause, mostly affect people with a fragile immune system.

Many cases of community-acquired pneumonia are due to the bacteria, Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as “pneumococcal pneumonia”.1

Pneumonia in the Winter Months - Cold and Flu Season

Pneumonia can occur anytime of the year. Community-acquired pneumonia can be more common during cold and flu season.2  A cold or flu can weaken the immune system and even damage the airways. This creates an opportunity for bacteria to cause infection in the lungs.3

Is Pneumonia Contagious?

In the community, these germs are often spread by touching contaminated objects, sharing eating or drinking utensils and through breathing infected droplets in the air from someone coughing or sneezing.3

Staying home when sick, hand hygiene, avoiding touching your face, and coughing or sneezing into your elbow are just some things that can help to reduce the spread.

Who Is at Higher Risk of getting Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can affect anyone at any age. Some people are more likely to get pneumonia or develop a more severe illness because of their age or risk conditions.1,3

The two age groups are at higher risk because of their weaker immune systems are:

  • Babies 12 months and under.

  • People 70 years of age and older.

Other risk factors and groups at risk include:

  • Smoking or being exposed to tobacco smoke.

  • Respiratory conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

  • Chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease).

  • Weak immune system (caused by conditions such as HIV/AIDS, receiving chemotherapy for cancer, use of steroids for a long time, having no spleen, or organ transplants).

  • Being on a ventilator (machine used to help you breathe).

  • Having recently had the cold or flu.

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  • Māori and Pacific Islander people.7

Complete the Pneumonia Risk Quiz to help understand your risk and start a conversation with your doctor.

Why Are Seniors (older adults 70 years and older) at Higher Risk of Developing Pneumonia? 

There are several reasons why people 70 years and older are more likely to develop pneumonia:8

  • Weaker immune system. As we age, our immune defence system doesn't work at 100%, leaving you more vulnerable to infection.

  • Ineffective ability to cough out germs. One of the ways our body gets rid of harmful germs in our airways is by trapping them in mucous and coughing it out. Inability to do this well can increase the chance of harmful germs reaching the lungs.

  • Higher likelihood of having other health conditions that make you more vulnerable. Certain conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, diabetes, conditions that weaken your immune system and some forms of cancer have been shown to increase a person's risk.

Complete the Pneumonia Risk Quiz to help understand your risk and start a conversation with your doctor.

How Long Does It Take To Get over pneumonia?

Most people’s symptoms can improve in days from starting treatment but, it could take weeks or months for a full recovery.4 People might continue to have a cough and experience fatigue for weeks or months.1 It is vital to listen to your body and get lots of rest.
It can take weeks or months for you to feel yourself again. 

What are the Complications of Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can sometimes lead to severe complications.9
Tissues in your body (especially in your heart and brain) might not receive the oxygen they need. Pneumonia can lead to:9

  • fluid or pus build up around the lungs

  • bacteraemia (infection in the blood), which can spread to other organs

  • worsening of other illness or conditions that you may have such as heart failure, arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm) and may lead to heart attack.

  • hospitalisation and even death.

Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause such complications, especially in those with a risk condition. It is essential to see your doctor as soon as you think you, or someone in your care may have pneumonia.

Helpful Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Health and prevent spread of pneumonia: 1,3
  • Avoid contact with sick people; if you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.

  • Practice good hand hygiene, wash your hands regularly with soap and water.

  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your arm sleeve (instead of your hands).

  • Limit exposure to cigarette smoke; stop smoking (if you smoke).

  • Keep up with your health visits.

  • Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise to help you stay well.

  • Talk to the doctor or nurse about prevention options, including vaccination.

It is vital to do everything you can to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.

If you think that you or your loved ones are at increased risk for pneumonia, talk to your doctor or nurse about prevention options, including vaccination.


  1. Pneumonia. Health Direct. Pneumonia - causes, symptoms and treatments | healthdirect Accessed Sep 8, 2023 
  2. Goldblatt D, O’Brien KL. Pneumococcal Infections. Chpt 141 In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, et al. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Accessed June 11, 2020. 
  3. Pneumonia. Lung Foundation Australia. Pneumonia - Lung Foundation Australia Accessed Sep 8, 2023 
  4. Pneumonia. Health Navigator New Zealand. Pneumonia | Healthify Accessed Sep 8, 2023
  5. Faverio P, Aliberti S, Bellelli G, et al. The management of community-acquired pneumonia in the elderly. Eur J Intern Med. 2014 April ; 25(4): 312–319
  6. Patel C, Dey A, Wang H, McIntyre P, et al. Summary of National Surveillance Data on Vaccine Preventable Diseases in Australia, 2016-2018 Final Report. Commun Dis Intell (2018). 2022;46 ( Epub 23/6/2022 
  7. Chambers S, Laing R, Murdoch D, et al. Maori have a much higher incidence of community-acquired pneumonia and pneumococcal pneumonia than non-Maori: findings from two New Zealand hospitals. NZ Med J 2006;119: 1-10
  8. Stupka JE, Mortenson EM, Anzueto A, et al. Community-acquired pneumonia in elderly patients. Aging health. 2009 ; 5(6): 763–774.
  9. Mandell LA, Wunderink R. Pneumonia. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, et al. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Accessed May 31, 2020. 

External Resources

- Health Direct – What is pneumonia?
- Lung Foundation Australia - Pneumonia
- Health Navigator New Zealand - Pneumonia

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