What’s the difference between pneumonia and COVID-19?

profile picture of Rishi Patel
Clinical Innovation Lead, Bupa
12 May 2023
Next review due May 2026

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in your lungs. But many infections that affect your lungs have similar symptoms to pneumonia. This can make it hard to know what’s making you ill. Could your cough be caused by pneumonia, or is it COVID-19? And what is COVID-19 pneumonia? Read on to find out more.

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What causes pneumonia?

There are several different causes of pneumonia, as well as ways you can catch it.

  • Bacterial pneumonia is caused by bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae.
  • Viral pneumonia is caused by a virus, such as influenza or SARS-CoV-2. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of viral pneumonia in children.
  • Fungal pneumonia is caused by fungi such as Pneumocystis jirovecii. Fungal pneumonia is less common than viral and bacterial pneumonia.

When these bacteria, viruses, or fungi get into your lungs, they can cause an infection. This is what causes the symptoms of pneumonia.

Most of the time, bacteria and viruses are spread when someone with an infection coughs or sneezes, which introduces droplets to the air. If you breathe in these droplets, you may develop pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

The symptoms of pneumonia can be quite similar to flu and COVID-19 symptoms, and include:

  • a cough, which may produce mucus (phlegm)
  • fever and chills
  • breathlessness or shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
  • pain in your chest
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite

When you have pneumonia, the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs become filled with fluid. This can make it hard to breathe. Pneumonia symptoms can develop over one or two days, or they might appear more slowly. They can also affect people differently, depending on what’s causing the infection and other risk factors, such as whether you smoke.

Infographic: Common symptoms of pneumonia

The infographic below illustrates some common symptoms of pneumonia. You can click on the image to open a larger PDF version of the infographic (PDF, 0.2 MB).

common symptoms of pneumonia infographic

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

For many people, COVID-19 can feel like a cold or the flu. The most common COVID-19 symptoms are:

  • fever and chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
  • a change in your sense of smell or taste
  • fatigue

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But although SARS-CoV-2 can cause pneumonia, if you have COVID-19, that doesn’t mean you will get pneumonia.

What’s the difference between COVID-19 and pneumonia?

COVID-19 and pneumonia are respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. This means that it can be hard to know what’s causing your symptoms without testing for COVID-19. But it’s important to know what’s causing your symptoms so that they can be treated properly.

In addition, some people with severe COVID-19 develop pneumonia as a complication. This is sometimes referred to as COVID-19 pneumonia. It’s thought that COVID-19 pneumonia might differ from other types of pneumonia, but the reasons why are still being investigated. COVID-19 pneumonia can be diagnosed by a chest X-ray or CT scan.

How is pneumonia treated?

Mild bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. But if your pneumonia is caused by a virus, such as SARS-CoV-2, you won’t be given antibiotics because these won’t treat or prevent viral pneumonia. Instead, your doctor might give you an antiviral drug to treat the infection. But if your symptoms are mild, this might not be necessary.

Most of the time, viral pneumonia clears up on its own. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, your GP can recommend treatments for you to try at home. But if your symptoms don’t improve after 72 hours, or you feel like you’re getting worse, you should seek further medical advice.

It's important to get lots of rest and to drink plenty of water, as you may be dehydrated. Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can also help ease chest pain and fever symptoms.

Is pneumonia preventable?

Most people can reduce their risk of getting pneumonia by taking the following steps:

  • being vaccinated against flu and COVID-19, since the viruses that cause these illnesses can also cause pneumonia
  • washing your hands regularly
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet – vitamins and minerals help your immune system function
  • if you’ve had a cold, flu, or COVID-19 recently, monitor any ongoing symptoms for signs of pneumonia

Some people are at increased risk of pneumonia, such as adults older than 65 years and those with certain long-term health conditions. For these people, a pneumonia vaccine can help prevent pneumonia.

Research is currently ongoing into whether the COVID-19 vaccine may lower the risk of developing severe pneumonia as a complication of COVID-19.

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profile picture of Rishi Patel
Dr Rishi Patel (he/him)
Clinical Innovation Lead, Bupa



Sheila Pinion, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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