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Published on May 08, 2017

Could that cough be pneumonia?

Could that cough be pneumonia?

Have a cold that won’t go away? Maybe a sore throat or earache, too? It could be pneumonia. Or more precisely, an infection of your lungs by the mycoplasma pneumoniae (M. pneumoniae) bacterium.

“It’s not disabling, you can function not knowing that you have pneumonia,” said Arash Tadbiri, MD, who practices geriatric and family medicine at Emerald Physicians in Bourne. “Much more of them go undetected. You might think it’s just a cold. ”

M. pneumoniae is more commonly called “walking pneumonia” because its symptoms are usually less severe than pneumonia, so patients may keep going about their daily routines. Dr. Tadbiri described it as an atypical pneumonia, because its symptoms differ from the more familiar pneumonia infections that often strike during cold weather months.

Typical pneumonia causes production of phlegm, coughing and fever, and sometimes shortness of breath, Dr. Tadbiri said. More than 60 percent of cases are caused by streptococcus bacteria, he said. The flu virus can also cause pneumonia.

In M. pneumoniae, less phlegm is produced. Sore throat or ear pain may be present. There may be a slowly worsening cough that lasts weeks. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, children under 5 infected with mycoplasma may have no fever, but experience wheezing, vomiting and diarrhea.

Prevent It With Good Health Habits

Because there is no vaccine for mycoplasma bacteria, and immunity after infection is short-lived, there are steps you can take to prevent the infection, such as:

  • Good hygiene and healthy habits
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Avoid smoking
  • Get enough rest, balanced nutrition and exercise to maintain a strong immune system.

Most colds last five to seven days, Dr. Tadbiri said. If symptoms of coughing, runny nose and body aches last longer than that, see your doctor, he said. A chest X-ray may be used to diagnose pneumonia and atypical pneumonia. Both are treated with antibiotics.

“Most infections occur in the fall, but year-round infection is common,” Dr. Tadbiri said. “One percent of the population in the United States is infected each year. For family members of a person with mycoplasma, it’s 90 percent. It’s very contagious. Immunity is not very long-lasting – about 10 days.”

Mycoplasma bacteria are spread by inhaling droplets from an infected person’s coughs and sneezes. Incubatiofn period between exposure and infection is two to three weeks, Dr. Tadbiri said.

Just because M. pneumoniae is generally less severe than typical pneumonia, doesn’t mean it can’t become serious enough to require hospitalization. All forms of pneumonia infections occurring outside of a hospital setting have a death rate of 28 percent, Dr. Tadbiri said. How many deaths are due to mycoplasma is unknown because it often goes unreported, he said.

Mycoplasma infections can cause heart, blood, liver, skin and neurological problems, with encephalitis and other central nervous system ills being the most common complications and these can be life-threatening, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Note: As of 5/1/2019, Emerald Physicians joined Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod (MACC), a division of primary and specialty care physicians from Cape Cod Healthcare.