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Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be caused by a variety of pathogenic organisms. Pneumonia in children used to be common enough that nearly every family had some experience with it, but in the modern era pneumonia is relatively rare.

Understanding the Causes of Pneumonia in Children

Families can rely on their doctor for primary care of pneumonia, but there are still many things parents and caretakers need to do to promote complete recovery from the disease.

Pneumonia was once an invariable complication of measles, a viral disease. Now that measles is more or less limited to sporadic outbreaks, most children who get pneumonia have a bacterial infection. Pneumonia in children can also result from viruses, fungi, chemical exposure, or near-drowning, and it can be caused by smoke or chemical inhalation or aspiration of food that gets lodged in the lungs.[1]

In children's pneumonia, the damage to the lung is caused not by the bacteria themselves but by the immune system's reaction to the bacteria. During the first 24 hours of infection, there are many bacteria but little damage to lung tissue.

During the next 48 hours, the lung becomes so inflamed and filled with white blood cells that it takes on the appearance of the liver. The worst symptoms occur as white blood cells and lung tissue break down and clog air passages. After the infection passes, the lungs slowly rebuild themselves once the cycle of infection and inflammation is over and phlegm has been expelled.

Pneumonia Symptoms You Can Expect

Children of different ages present different symptoms [2]:

  • Newborns who get pneumonia often do not cough, and they usually do not develop a fever. Symptoms of pneumonia in babies include very rapid breathing, lack of interest in feeding, flaring nostrils, and blue tint to the skin.
  • Infants more than a month old may develop a fever if they contract pneumonia, although viral pneumonia may cause no fever at all. The baby may pull away from a mother or a bottle, and breathing may be fast and labored. Caretakers may notice wheezing or loud breathing.
  • Toddlers who get pneumonia often also have stomach upsets with vomiting and tenderness in the abdomen. Coughing is a common symptom.
  • Older children who get pneumonia often have a history colds and flu. The same microorganism that causes ear infections can also cause pneumonia. Any child over the age of 2 who gets pneumonia is likely to have a strong cough.

The good news about pneumonia in children is that children who get pneumonia usually recover. Hospitalization is seldom required. Pneumonia is particularly present in the developing countries: 150.7 million of new cases, with up to 20 million (almost 15%) of which are severe enough to require hospital admission.[3]

Home Remedies for Pneumonia in Children

It's always good to consult a doctor if your child shows symptoms of pneumonia. Prompt medical attention may prevent serious medical complications. There is a great deal parents and other caretakers can do, however, to speed the healing process.

  • Heat loosens phlegm, but heat should never be applied directly to a child's skin. If you use a hot water bottle, place the hot water bottle on a towel and the towel on the child's chest. Don't use an electric heating pad on children.
  • Sound also loosens phlegm. A diathermy machine generates sound waves that become heat when they are absorbed in the body, increasing circulation to the lungs and diaphragm so that the muscles in the chest relax and breathing is easier. Diathermy treatments are typically done in the morning, and are best for after care. Too much circulation to the lungs in the first 3 days after infection can actually make symptoms worse by encouraging the circulation of white blood cells to the lungs. Children who have cancer or who have blood clotting disorders should not be treated with diathermy. Studies prove that the biggest advantage of the diathermy machine in pneumonia patients is pain relief.[4]
  • Water vapor loosens phlegm. The child's room should have a vaporizer running 24 hours a day.
  • Mustard plasters are a traditional remedy for chest colds and pneumonia. The important thing to remember about mustard plasters for treating pneumonia in children (or in adults) is that the mustard is never directly applied to the skin. To make the plaster, grind 1/4 cup (50 grams) of yellow or black mustard seed, taking care not to get the ground mustard in your eyes. Mix the ground mustard in 1/4 cup (60 ml) of warm water (hot water will cause the healing compounds in the mustard to evaporate), and then place mustard-water mix between two layers of clean cloth and place the plaster of the child's chest. As soon as the child complains of a burning sensation, the essential oils of the mustard plaster have done their work. The plaster should be removed immediately to prevent irritation to the child's skin.
  • Postural drainage can be used to remove phlegm from the upper lobes of the lungs so it can be coughed up. The procedure is very straightforward. Help the child sit up in bed, and then bend the knees and place the right arm across the stomach. This posture moves phlegm into the upper lobes of the lungs. When the child is ready to change position, but after no more than 3 minutes, simply allow the child to hold his or her right arm at the side and move the left arm over the stomach. After no more than 3 minutes in this position, allow the child to lie down again.[5]
  • Postural drainage can also be used to move phlegm from the middle lobes of the lungs. To do this drainage procedure, the foot of the bed needs to be about one foot (30 cm) higher than the head of the bed. The child is allowed to roll on to his or her left side, and gravity will drain phlegm from the middle lobes of the right lung. Then the child rolls over to his or her right side other side, and more phlegm is drained from the left lung. Don't expect the child to stay in this position more than 2 minutes, and allow opportunity for coughing after each drainage session.[5]
  • To remove phlegm from the lower lobes of the lungs, keep the foot of the bed elevated. Ask the child to roll over on his or her stomach for up to 2 minutes at a time. Stop if breathing becomes labored or the child complains of pain.[5]

Your doctor may also recommend doing percussion or vibration, which are two similar techniques that help break up thick fluids in the lungs.[5]

Never attempt to drain phlegm from the lungs:

  • Within 30 minutes after a child has eaten,
  • If the child has a head or eye injury, or
  • If the child has been vomiting or reports feeling nauseous, in pain or has difficulty breathing.

Stop postural drainage if the child complains or breathing becomes labored. Never leave a child unattended during postural drainage.