Pneumonia is, technically, an inflammation of the lungs. The inflammation can be caused by a number of infective agents – bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites – or due to aspiration of food or gastric juices that irritate the lung tissue. Pneumonia can be a complication of influenza, particularly in those who are older than 65 years of age, and it even sometimes occurs when a secondary bacterial infection takes hold of the lungs after the common cold makes an immune compromised or very young/old person susceptible.
Walking pneumonia, also known as atypical pneumonia, is a more specific term. As the term implies, it is a type of pneumonia, but it’s one that is not severe enough to require bed rest or hospitalization according to Dr. Edward Rosenow of the Mayo Clinic. Specifically, the term “walking pneumonia” usually describes an infection of the lungs by the bacteria-like pathogen Mycoplasma pneumoniae, which causes a much more mild infection than the common bacterial cause of pneumonia, Streptococcus pneumoniae. Generally, a mild pneumonia is termed “walking pneumonia”, and most mild pneumonias are caused by Mycoplasma.
Symptoms of Mycoplasma infection can last for days to months and include the normal signs of infection (fever, headache, fatigue) as well as the more lung-specific cough, bronchitis, and sore throat. The time from exposure to symptoms is approximately 2-4 weeks. The pathogen is spread via aerosol, droplets in a cough or sneeze. Mycoplasma can also cause ear infections. Walking pneumonia usually resolves on its own though antibiotics and/or inhalers are used for more severe symptoms. On the other hand, some mild pneumonias are viral, particularly in healthy adolescents and young adults, and these infections will not respond to antibiotics.
The more often seen general pneumonia is the better known infection that often results in hospitalization and can be life-threatening. The initial infection is similar to the flu and walking pneumonia, but the symptoms then progress to compromise the lungs, including chest pain upon breathing, shortness of breath, and chills/sweating. Unlike walking pneumonia, more severe forms of the infection require hospitalization and treatment. The patient’s initial health and the type of pneumonia (i.e. infective agent or irritant) affect the outcome of the disease and treatment, including how long the symptoms hang around. Complications of pneumonia include bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream), fluid accumulation in and around the lungs, respiratory distress, and abscesses in the lungs.
Unlike walking pneumonia, which can go undiagnosed and untreated due to its mild nature, severe pneumonia is usually diagnosed by a doctor and treated with antibiotics. Viral forms will not respond to the treatment and require antivirals. Rest and fluids are also usually prescribed for recovery. Similarly, fungal causes are treated by antifungal medications.
Whether a particular case is termed pneumonia or walking pneumonia is usually determined by the symptoms. A blood or mucus test can determine the exact infective agent, which then influences what treatment may work and if it is necessary.