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 has pneumonia, the alveoli are filled with pus and fluid, which makes breathing difficult and limits oxygen intake.
Pneumonia is the single largest cause of death in children worldwide. Every year, it kills an estimated 1.1 million children under the age of five years, accounting for 18 per cent of all deaths of children under five years old worldwide.
Pneumonia in children can be caused by a number of infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria and fungi. Viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia.
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.
Pneumonia often comes after a respiratory infection, such as a cold or flu. Most children with pneumonia get better quite quickly and completely. While most healthy children can fight the infection with their natural defences, children whose immune systems are compromised are at higher risk of developing pneumonia. 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 HIV and measles, also increase a child’s risk of contracting pneumonia.
A number of environmental factors also increase a child’s susceptibility to pneumonia, including indoor air pollution caused by cooking, and heating with fuels such as dung, wood, and coal. Living in crowded homes, or parental smoking, are also risk factors.
When everyone works together to reduce pneumonia, every child’s right to life, survival, health and development can be better assured.
Every family should know that:
- Children can be protected from pneumonia - it can be prevented with simple interventions, and treated with low-cost, low-tech medication and care;
- Preventing pneumonia in children is an essential component of a strategy to reduce child mortality. Immunization against pneumococcus, measles and whooping cough (pertussis) are the most effective ways of preventing pneumonia;
- Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding after six months, can reduce the risks associated with pneumonia;
- Adequate nutrition is key to improving a child’s natural defences, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life. In addition to being effective in preventing pneumonia, nutrition also helps to reduce the length of an 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 from pneumonia.
Signs and symptoms of pneumonia vary depending on your child’s age and the cause of the pneumonia. Children often have one or more of the following:
- High fever;
- Fast and/or difficult breathing — your child’s breathing will become hard work, and you can often see the ribs 'sucking in' when they are breathing;
- Being irritable or more tired than usual;
- A pain in the chest, especially when coughing;
- Abdominal aches or pain.
Most children refuse to eat. This is often a concern for parents, but remember that it is important to continue feeding your child. It is important to give your child fluids to prevent dehydration (offer small 'sips' of water and/or breast milk more often).
You should contact a doctor, if your child is being treated for pneumonia and:
- His or her breathing becomes more difficult;
- The child becomes more drowsy or sleepy, or is hard to wake;
- The child vomits and is unable to drink much;
- You are worried about your child at any stage during the illness, or you have other questions.
Some children need to be checked after a few days. Your doctor will tell you when to come back.
Some key points to remember:
- Most children with pneumonia recover quite quickly and completely;
- If your child has pneumonia, they will need to rest and drink small amounts of fluid often;
- Cough medicines do not help children with pneumonia;
- It is very important to start and complete the course of antibiotics if they have been prescribed by the doctor.