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Man in bed coughing with the flu.

The difference between pneumonia and the flu

How do you know if you have pneumonia or the flu? Diondra Atoyebi, D.O., a family medicine physician at Piedmont, says certain symptoms can provide clues.

“It’s easy for patients to confuse the flu and pneumonia,” says Dr. Atoyebi. “We see that all the time. When people have upper respiratory symptoms like a cough, runny nose or wheezing, they often come in concerned about pneumonia or flu.”

The good news is pneumonia is rare in healthy adults with no major medical issues, and the flu shot can greatly decrease your risk of the flu.

Pneumonia symptoms vs. flu symptoms

“Because pneumonia is a lung infection, it typically has more respiratory symptoms, while the flu is accompanied by muscular aches and pains and fatigue,” she explains.

The flu usually comes on suddenly, while pneumonia takes longer to develop and can be a complication from the flu. The flu is caused by a viral infection, while pneumonia can be caused by either a bacterial infection or viral infection.

Flu symptoms include:

  • Body aches and pains

  • Dry cough

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Fever above 100.4 degrees

  • Headache

Pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Bluish fingernails and lips

  • Chills

  • Confusion (most common in older adults)

  • Coughing

  • Decreased appetite

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Fever up to 105 degrees

  • Pain when breathing deeply

  • Quick heartbeat and breathing

  • Sweating

  • Trouble catching your breath

  • Wheezing (common in children)

  • Yellow, greenish or bloody mucus when you cough

Who is at risk for pneumonia?

“We are much more likely to see pneumonia in someone who doesn’t have good lung function or who is immunocompromised from another health condition,” says Dr. Atoyebi.

The following factors can increase your risk for pneumonia:

  • Age (children younger than 5 and adults older than 65)

  • Asthma

  • Bronchiectasis

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Decreased brain function as a result of an injury or illness

  • Diabetes

  • Heart disease

  • Liver cirrhosis

  • Recent respiratory infection, like the flu, a cold or laryngitis

  • Recent injury or surgery

  • Smoking

  • Trouble swallowing (often caused by another condition, such as a stroke)

  • Weakened immune system

Is pneumonia contagious?

The flu is much more contagious than pneumonia, says Dr. Atoyebi, particularly if you are otherwise healthy.

When to see a doctor for pneumonia or flu

“Both the flu and pneumonia can have complications if you don’t get proper treatment,” says Dr. Atoyebi.

This is especially important for older adults, children, pregnant women and people with serious health conditions.

Generally, the flu can be treated with an antiviral prescription if you see your doctor within the first day or two of symptoms.

If you have pneumonia symptoms, see your doctor right away. You may need an X-ray for an accurate diagnosis and require antibiotics if you have bacterial pneumonia.

“If you’re taking over-the-counter medications for a few days and not getting better, I recommend seeing your doctor,” she says. “A cold or flu usually gets better after a few days. If you have a high fever, are not keeping food down, have breathing issues or it’s hard to function, you need to see your doctor. At that point, you are at high risk for complications.”

Dr. Atoyebi practices at Piedmont Physicians of Monroe, located at 2161 West Spring Street, Suite A, Monroe, GA 30655. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Atoyebi or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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