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The Truth About White Lung Pneumonia

Pediatrician listens to young boys lungs

Recent news stories have reported an uptick in cases of childhood pneumonia, both in the U.S. and around the world. An increase in respiratory infections is typical this time of the year, but some media sources are stoking concerns by suggesting there’s a new virus – called “white lung” pneumonia.

“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Amy Edwards, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals. “Most types of pneumonia will show up on imaging scans as white patches in the lungs, indicating areas of inflammation. Therefore, the term ‘white lung’ is not a diagnosis and does not have any clinical meaning beyond its descriptive value.”

What Causes Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs than can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. The inflammation causes the lung sacs that are normally filled with air to fill with fluid or pus and be visualized as white patches on X-rays or CT scans.

“The current uptick in pneumonia seems to be caused by the bacteria mycoplasma – a pathogen that has been around for a long time and typically surges every two or three years. Sometimes called walking pneumonia, mycoplasma lung infections are usually mild and relatively easy to treat,” says Dr. Edwards.

It’s also likely that the COVID-19 pandemic is partly responsible. During the years of social distancing, masking and lockdowns, immune systems were not routinely exposed to airborne pathogens and became more vulnerable to some infections. As time goes on, immunity will continue to rebound and become more robust.

Symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Persistent, usually productive (wet) cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Headache

Although most people will recover from pneumonia without treatment, if symptoms persist or are severe, evaluation by a physician is recommended – particularly in the very young, the elderly and those with a compromised immune system or a history of other lung disorders.

How is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

If symptoms suggest pneumonia, a chest X-ray or CT scan will likely be ordered to look for the telltale white patches that occur with lung infections. Additional tests may include bloodwork and pulse oximetry to measure oxygen levels.

“If pneumonia is confirmed or suspected, a sample of respiratory mucus may be looked at under a microscope to determine if the cause is bacterial, viral or fungal – a distinction that will be important if medical treatment becomes necessary,” says Dr. Edwards.

Pneumonia Can Often Be Managed at Home

Otherwise healthy individuals will often be able to fight the infection and recover without medical intervention. Simple at-home recommendations include:

  • Take over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen for muscle aches and fever.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can cause thicker mucus and a worsening cough.
  • Get lots of rest to help your body fight off the infection.

In some cases, based on the severity of symptoms and the identified cause of the infection, antiviral, antibiotic or anti-fungal medications may be prescribed. Although rare, some high-risk individuals may require hospitalization.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

Respiratory infections like pneumonia tend to increase during the holiday season and the winter months that follow. As people gather together and spend more time indoors, viral infections in particular can easily be spread from one person to another. To minimize risk, the American Lung Association offers the following tips:

  • Get an annual flu vaccine to help prevent flu-related pneumonia.
  • Ask your doctor if the pneumonia vaccine is appropriate for you. Although there is no vaccine for viral pneumonia, the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine may offer protection from bacterial strains.
  • Exercise, eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of sleep.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, using a tissue or the inside of your elbow.

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The experts at University Hospitals have the expertise to diagnose and treat a wide range of infectious diseases, including viral, bacterial and fungal pneumonia in both adults and children. Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or pulmonologist if respiratory symptoms worsen or become severe.