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Pneumocystis Pneumonia

What Is Pneumocystis Pneumonia?

Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) is a lung infection caused by a fungus. It's rare in healthy people, and usually affects those with a weak immune system. It's the most common infection diagnosed in people with HIV infection or AIDS. It's seen much less often now because people infected with HIV get special medicine to prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Pneumocystis Pneumonia?

Symptoms of pneumocystis (new-meh-SISS-tis) pneumonia include:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • trouble breathing
  • chest pain
  • night sweats or chills
  • weight loss
  • feeling very tired

Sometimes the symptoms start suddenly and are severe. Other times they may start out mild and develop slowly, over days to weeks.

Who gets Pneumocystis Pneumonia?

A fungus called Pneumocystis jirovecii causes pneumocystis pneumonia. It can live in the lungs of healthy people without causing problems. But it can be life-threatening if it spreads to someone with a weak immune system.

People at risk for getting sick with PCP include those:

  • with HIV infection or AIDS
  • who take medicine that affect how well the body fights infections, such as steroids or chemotherapy
  • with conditions such as cancer or immune deficiencies
  • who have had an organ transplant or stem cell transplant

Is Pneumocystis Pneumonia Contagious?

PCP is contagious. The fungus that causes it can spread from person to person through the air. People can spread the disease even when they're healthy and have no symptoms.

How Is Pneumocystis Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Doctors might suspect PCP in patients with a fever, cough, and trouble breathing who also have a weak immune system. The doctor might order a chest X-ray or blood tests to help with the diagnosis. To confirm it, the doctor will look for the fungus in samples of fluid or tissue from the lungs.

How Is Pneumocystis Pneumonia Treated?

Early treatment is key because PCP is potentially life-threatening. Doctors treat the infection with antibiotics, either by mouth or intravenously (into a vein), for about 3 weeks. If the symptoms are severe, the doctor might also give a steroid medicine. This eases inflammation in the lungs, and is different from the steroids that athletes might use.

Most kids will need treatment in a hospital. They may need IV fluids and oxygen if they have trouble breathing. For severe problems, a child may need breathing help from a ventilator (breathing machine) until they get better.

Can Pneumocystis Pneumonia Be Prevented?

No vaccine can prevent PCP. But people with HIV/AIDS or other conditions that weaken the immune system can take antibiotics to prevent pneumocystis infection.

Until it's known if they're also infected with HIV, most infants born to HIV-infected mothers get antibiotic treatment to prevent PCP. This begins when they're around 1 month old. Babies found to be HIV-negative can stop taking the antibiotics. Those who are HIV-positive will continue on antibiotics until the doctor decides that they don't need them. This is usually when the medicine they take to treat their HIV or AIDS is working well, and their immune system is strong enough to fight the fungus.

What Else Should I Know?

Some antibiotics used to treat PCP can have side effects, such as rash, diarrhea, or fever. The health care team will watch for these and manage them in the hospital. If they need to, they can switch to a different medicine.

Date reviewed: January 2020