A woman sitting on the couch blowing her nose.
Whether you have pneumonia or flu, be sure to stay home as both are contagious within the first three to four days of symptoms.

Pneumonia vs Flu: A Comparison of Symptoms

Both the flu and pneumonia can make you feel miserable. When it comes to pneumonia vs flu, symptoms of infections can be similar, and it may be challenging to figure out if you are suffering from one or the other. Determining if you are suffering from the flu or pneumonia is important as treatment for these conditions differ.

In this article, we discuss symptoms of both the flu and pneumonia, explain their causes, and give an overview of treatment options and outline preventative measures you can take to keep healthy.

Symptoms: Pneumonia vs Flu

First, let’s talk briefly about the flu and pneumonia. The flu is a common viral infection that typically comes on quickly and causes symptoms such as muscular pain and fatigue, while pneumonia develops slowly and presents with a range of respiratory symptoms including cough and shortness of breath. Where it gets tricky to decipher between the two conditions is when the symptoms are similar. Below we outline common flu and pneumonia symptoms.

Typical flu symptoms:

  • Body aches and pain
  • Severe fatigue
  • Dry cough
  • Headache
  • Fever (100.4F)

Pneumonia symptoms:

  • Cough (sometimes with yellow, green, or bloody mucus)
  • Chills
  • Bluish lips and/or fingernails
  • Decreased appetite
  • Severe fatigue
  • Fever (can be as high as 105F)
  • Pain with deep breathing
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Wheezing (common in children)
  • Confusion (seen more in the elderly)

What Are the Causes?

The influenza virus causes the flu, while pneumonia can be a complication of the flu, or can be caused by other type of viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

How Are the Treatments Different?

Both the flu and pneumonia affect children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems more harshly than healthy young to middle-aged adults. It’s therefore important to consult with your family doctor as soon as you start to experience flu or pneumonia symptoms to be evaluated. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to alleviate symptoms in the case of an influenza infection, if it is within the first day or two of symptom onset. If your doctor suspects that you have pneumonia, they will typically order x-rays or other testing options to confirm the diagnosis. If a bacterial infection is found, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, or if a fungal infection is found, antifungals will be prescribed to clear up the infection.

Even if you are generally healthy, if you are suffering with a persistent high fever, along with additional symptoms of flu or pneumonia, it is best to check in with your doctor. Pneumonia typically takes time to show symptoms and if it is left untreated it can lead to serious complications.

Are Flu and Pneumonia Contagious?

The flu is a highly contagious infection that spreads rapidly in the winter months. It typically transmits from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes, but can also be transmitted by touching infected surfaces. The flu is most contagious during the first three to four days after the illness begins; with that being said, healthy individuals can start to spread the flu one day before their symptoms appear and up to seven days after symptoms appear. Children and immunocompromised individuals may spread the flu for even longer than seven days.

Most cases of pneumonia are either caused by viruses or bacteria, and not everyone exposed to these germs develop pneumonia, but they can develop respiratory illnesses. The bacteria and viruses responsible for most cases of pneumonia can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, by touching infected surfaces, and by sharing personal items like cups, toothbrushes, etc. Generally, pneumonia is contagious for a few days before developing symptoms to a few days once symptoms appear. Typically, pneumonia stops being contagious a day or two after starting antibiotic treatment.

Patients at a higher risk of developing a serious respiratory illness, like pneumonia, from the flu and other viruses and bacteria include those with asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, cirrhosis of the liver, and/or those with weakened immune systems. Additionally, individuals who smoke, and those who have recently undergone surgery are also at an increased risk.

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Prevention of Flu and Pneumonia

The best way to prevent the flu and pneumonia is to frequently wash your hands with soap and water, especially during the winter months when these infections are most prevalent. Hand washing is crucial before and after eating, after using the washroom, after being around individuals who are sick and after being out in public. If hand washing is not available, using hand sanitizer can help to prevent the spread of germs.

Other preventative steps you can take:

  • Staying away from sick people if possible
  • Staying home if you are sick
  • Staying up to date on vaccinations
  • Quitting smoking
  • Managing any chronic health condition

In Conclusion

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if the symptoms you are experiencing are related to the flu or pneumonia as many of the symptoms of these two infections are similar. It’s best to consult your doctor if you are suffering from a persistent fever that is accompanied by additional symptoms to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms and get appropriate treatment to prevent complications.