Nobody wants to go to a well-child checkup and come home with a diagnosis that could mean a hospital stay.
My experience with pneumonia is pretty slim: memories of my brother being in the hospital with it for a few days when he was six and hearing of it being the final (losing) battle for elderly relatives far too often.
When our pediatrician kept listening to the same spot on my toddler’s chest at his 15-month checkup, I could tell that something wasn’t right.
She heaved a sigh before saying, “I wish it wasn’t there, but it’s there. He’s got a touch of pneumonia on this side.”
The boy had been quite sick three and four days prior, feverish, lethargic, and just wanting to nurse and sleep all day. He didn’t leave my arms for 24 hours. It never seemed to be anything out of the ordinary in the midst of cold and flu season in November, and when his fever broke in the middle of the night, we thought he was on his way up.
His appetite stunk for the next two days but his attitude was great, but still when I took him in that Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, I never expected him to have a serious respiratory infection.
Pneumonia is defined as an inflammation of the lungs caused by an infection, the root of which might be viral, bacterial, or even fungal.
If you have viral pneumonia, antibiotics won’t help, and although you’re still contagious, other people won’t necessarily develop pneumonia even if they catch the same virus. It could present itself as a simple cold for the next person, even though you were lucky enough to have it settle in your lungs and irritate them.
If you have bacterial pneumonia, it’s another story entirely. It’s contagious as pneumonia, first of all, and antibiotics would be effective and highly recommended to avoid more serious consequences. Pneumonia happens to be the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, in case you wanted to be freaked out today.
Common Symptoms of Pneumonia in Toddlers
For adults, two huge signs of pneumonia beyond basic flu-like symptoms that could mean anything include chest pain that worsens while inhaling and coughing up mucus (sputum).
A toddler can’t tell you if it’s hard to breathe, and unfortunately, they can’t really even cough effectively enough to clear their lungs of mucus when it’s so deep.
Hi! I’m Katie, and I’m the chief mess-maker around here trying to journey to better stewardship of my family’s health and the environment – while balancing a budget and limited time (did I mention I have 4 kids?).
I’d love to share more of our family-friendly recipes, science geek research and uber-practical tips with you, and I have a mini eBook with our family’s favorite “party recipes” just for you.
If you like what you’ve read so far, I hope you’ll strap on your seatbelt and join us for the ride:
(Notice that coughing has a purpose, which is why we don’t use cough suppressants around here but for the rare occasion when Lympha Rub doesn’t work to allow for sleep at night. One drop of that herbal/essential oil remedy on the very back of the throat usually stops a cough within ten minutes or less, for children or adults.)
When John had pneumonia, he had gotten a cold from one of his older brothers and sisters. See how nice it is when your children learn the virtue of sharing? He was generally fine all day, but at night, he would have coughing fits that would wake him. A few nights in a row, he coughed so hard that he vomited. At his age, with nighttime nursing and a poor appetite, it really looked more like spit-up, so it seemed less of a big deal than “real” vomiting. Besides, it was obvious that he had gagged himself.
What we didn’t yet understand was that it was the mucus that simply wasn’t coming up that was gagging him and making him vomit. If your toddler seems to have a chest infection and this happens at night, it’s something to pay attention to, particularly if it happens more than once. Note: Coughing leading to vomiting certainly does not mean someone has pneumonia – child or adult – but it’s something that can go on your checklist to at least ask the right questions. UPDATE 2013: We had another frightening experience with coughing and vomiting – it ended up being whooping cough, in both our vaccinated and unvaccinated kids.
When I put my ear to John’s chest without any stethoscope, I could clearly hear a wheezing sort of sound – the toddler’s version of, “Man, it really feels tight when I inhale.” Another sign to watch for.
In our guy, poor appetite was a sign that he was still sick, but for your toddler, that might just mean they’re a toddler.
The final symptom that surprised us enough to send us to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night almost exactly three months later is not even lung related.
Constipation is Common for Young Children with Pneumonia
This February, after we kicked pneumonia in November without resorting to antibiotics, John got another cold from big sister. (He may have actually caught this one himself, thanks to shopping carts and library storytime.)
We kept a really close eye on his coughing and pulled out all the stops as far as natural means of fighting infection that we had at our disposal.
Each time he’d wake up coughing at night, I cringed, waiting for the mucus to come flying out. It never did, so I thought we were in the clear. He was starting to get better, we thought, when he awoke one night all out of sorts.
My husband couldn’t calm him down back to sleep and brought him to me for the magic nursies.
When he wouldn’t nurse, we looked at each other in shock. If you have a baby who’s addicted to nursing like all three of mine have been, you’ll know what we were thinking.
We knew something weird was going on.
Over the next 30 minutes, we tried everything we could think of to calm him down, all the while worrying and watching him cry, lay down, get up, not allow people to hold him, fight nursing, and writhe in pain.
He would lay his head down on the floor like he was so tired he couldn’t stand up anymore, but his lower half was still ooching and scooching his body across the floor like a vacuum cleaner.
Every time we picked him up, his whole body struggled to get down.
It looked like he was in severe abdominal distress, and as the minutes ticked by, the worry mounted like a knotted hose.
We started wondering if he had eaten something that was lodged in his intestines.
We questioned: Did he have any food out of the ordinary today or yesterday? (No.) His appetite was very poor, so most of his nourishment had been breastmilk. I hadn’t eaten anything out of the ordinary either.
I rubbed his belly, we put him in the bath with a warm washcloth to try to encourage a bowel movement, and finally, he threw up a few times.
When you praise God for vomit, you know you’re a parent.
“Ah, of course,” we thought. “His tummy really hurt! Now that his body got rid of whatever that was, we should be able to calm him now.”
What would you do if the writhing and crying didn’t stop or slow down at all after vomiting?
Heading to the Emergency Room
The doctor on call (in my tiny hometown, because of course this sort of thing only happens after a 5-hour drive away from home) said it could very well be an abdominal obstruction and to go to the ER right away.
The closest hospital is a good 45-minute drive.
Let’s just say it didn’t take us quite that long.
He was sleeping (and still breathing) by the time we arrived (Murphy’s Law of Emergency Rooms, I hear), so a lot of the stress began to subside. My husband says I lost it, but I was just fervently praying, not out of control.
Just so you know.
It turns out, after a much debated chest X-ray that will definitely remain the worst five minutes of my year, that constipation is a side effect of pneumonia in many little ones. I still don’t quite understand why, but I hope someone can learn from our experience. Update: It hadn’t been days without a bowel movement, just 36 hours maybe. It was more that there was a bunch of gas in his intestines that caused the pain, but the doc said that’s really common for young ones with pneumonia. Strange.
Now to teach Google that if a parent searching for “abdominal pain in toddler with cough,” particularly if it’s the middle of the night, they need to read this post.
We came home with a suppository that we never used and a prescription for antibiotics that we never filled.
If you need a little recap of those symptoms of pneumonia in babies, here you go:
- flu-like symptoms: fever, lethargy, cough, etc.
- coughing so hard the child vomits, especially at night
- wheezing noise in chest
- severe constipation/abdominal pain
They Key to Kicking Pneumonia in Babies and Young Children Naturally
If you ever read anything I write and think it is wise or that I noticed or realized something you didn’t, believe me, it’s not me. It’s in my genes.
My mom is probably the most insightful person I know.
Back in the early 80s when her kids were little, she pondered the workings of Dimetapp. Her thinking, my paraphrase: If this thickens mucus so my kids can sleep without coughing, wouldn’t it also thicken mucus throughout the system, like the ears? And don’t we want the noses to run to get the virus out? I’m hesitant to use it often…
We had Dimetapp, which I was a real champ about taking (picture lots of crying in despair and parental counting to 10…), only if we absolutely could not sleep.
I was very proud of my mom when it came out decades later that people really shouldn’t use medicine in the category of Dimetapp very often, and especially on children younger than six. I never had an ear infection as a kid, but my mom watched a number of friends’ kids – who were frequent Dimetapp users – have terrible ear problems as they grew.
So when my mom told me in February that she had a hunch about how to help John relieve his chest congestion, I was all ears.
She had read about how kids with cystic fibrosis have awful mucus in the lungs, and parents do a special sort of steam treatment and back clapping to help them loosen it up and cough it out.
She also admitted that she had wondered if this would work when John had his first bout of pneumonia in the fall, but since she hadn’t confirmed it, she didn’t tell me.
And why not??? It’s brilliant!
A quick Google search yielded exactly that recommendation for kids with pneumonia or any chest congestion. I’m telling you, it works amazingly well:
Home Remedy to Help (Viral) Pneumonia or Chest Congestion in Babies and Toddlers
- Turn your shower on nice and hot and allow the bathroom to steam up.
- Keep your baby/toddler close to the steam, using the shower curtain as a “hood” for you and the child if need be (if your bathroom is large and doesn’t steam up, for example).
- Using a cupped hand, clap the child on the back – nice and hard, but without hurting them of course – until they cough. (We were so pleasantly surprised that it really worked. Within a few claps, John would really give a good hack.)
- Take a break, then do it again. Keep a towel or clothing between you and the baby so you’re not clapping on bare skin, and try to work around the whole chest/lung area, front, back, and sides. This commenter really knows what she’s doing and has great tips for success.
- Stay in the steam for at least ten minutes.
- Optional: Add a few drops of essential oils that are good for the lungs and breathing, or are anti-bacterial in nature, like eucalyptus, peppermint, cinnamon, camphor, or lemon. (There are others too.)
- Update: You should always check with a trained aromatherapist or naturopath to make sure you’re using appropriate essential oils. Please read my 2014 post on the potential dangers of essential oils.
We called it a steam party, and my older son who was coughing at the time as well got to come join us. He didn’t like when I clapped him on the back, but it was worth it!
I also clapped my toddler on the chest, particularly because we knew exactly where the congestion had settled, so I focused on that spot a lot. He coughed every time.
Other Natural Treatments for Pneumonia
Now that our little guy has fought off pneumonia twice, with two scripts for antibiotics that we can add to our virtual scrapbook of unfilled or unused prescriptions, I feel like I know a little about how to treat it naturally.
Use oils with antibacterial & antiviral properties
- garlic oil (like this one) or a purchased extractive of garlic on the feet
- oil of oregano or tea tree in a carrier oil, like olive oil or coconut oil, on the feet
- germ fighting oil blends are great
- with a carrier on the feet
- diffused into the air, either with a diffuser, vaporizer, or even simply a few drops in some water in a pot, simmering (not boiling) on the stove. Make sure to keep an eye on the pot so it doesn’t go dry.
- do any of these every few hours or even more frequently
Keep up with probiotics, especially after the fact
Get helpful oils for the respiratory system into the air
- I put hot water in the cold steam vaporizer along with some combo of camphor, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon or peppermint – all night long.
- Use the stream treatment described above a few times a day as well.
Attack with other antibacterial/antiviral natural remedies
- we used a few drops of propolis a few times a day
- I took Pau d’Arco tablets, Olive Leaf extract tablets, and lots of probiotics for him (at least 2 hours apart, so that the antibac methods don’t immediately kill the probiotics)
It’s important to know enough about essential oils to be safe with them! I learned a TON at this very helpful post and you should read it, too, especially about eucalyptus, cinnamon and peppermint for children.
I’ve also recently learned not to use homeopathics and EOs at the same time, for example, which is something desperate parents need to know when presented with a huge list of remedies like this post. Just be sure not to use a remedy (or multiple remedies at once) and forget to treat them like medicine just because they’re “natural” and you read about them on some blog somewhere. 😉
Update: My own post on the potential dangers of essential oils. They can be great if used correctly, but you need to know enough to know what you don’t yet know…
More Recommendations from Readers
I always learn more from the community here at KS than I teach. When I posted on Facebook about the ill-fated checkup in the fall:
The silver lining of J’s “well” child checkup today? I’ll be prepared to write a post someday on “What to do when your 15mo has pneumonia and you hate antibiotics.” Sighhhhh..
I got lots of wisdom. Here’s the best:
- lots recommended essential oils and probiotics as a first course of action
- extra doses of Vitamin C & D
- sleeping propped upright
- Echinacea and goldenseal
- raw honey, fresh lemon, garlic, cayenne pepper
- colloidal silver, in a nebulizer for the lungs (not sure about this product yet for our family…seems like there’s some evidence that it’s a bit too potent, perhaps, but every time I ask readers how they fight infection without drugs, this one comes up multiple times)
- Chiropractic and standard process whole food vitamins (many readers recommend chiropractics any time I’m looking for “sick kid” advice as well…in fact, I finally have an appointment with one for our middle child next week, so I’m taking “Natural Health Month” steps too!)
- 8 drops lavender and 8 cloves garlic: food process, strain, and rub on chest every waking hour until healed. (I’ve learned that garlic can be a bit caustic, like when I use it on the feet for a natural treatment for ear infections, so I’d use some olive oil in the mix, too, although I haven’t tried this one myself at all.)
- Epsom salt baths for detox
- Ivy extract
- Liposomal Vitamin C (I’m not even sure what that means…)
- This health program was recommended by a reader; know that I have no idea what it’s like or what it costs…
- And many gave moral support for the idea that sometimes, modern medicine is necessary and welcome, and to not beat myself up over giving him antibiotics but just follow with lots of probiotics.
Ironically, John had been taking Vaccishield, a pretty strong probiotic designed to prepare a child’s system for vaccinations. He had a week of it under his belt when he got sick, and obviously we didn’t get any vaccinations because his health was not good.
His next bout with illness was around when he should have had his 18-month well-child checkup. We didn’t even have one scheduled, but I can’t help but wonder if God is saying, “Don’t vaccinate yet. Wait until he’s two.” …or beyond.
Overall I’m so thankful that we were able to treat pneumonia naturally without the use of antibiotics or any other prescription drug. John pulled through the first time and kicked it fairly easily – within 24-48 hours of that awful hospital visit – the second time, when we used the steam party treatment.
I can even be grateful for the experience in a way, because every time a child gets sick, I become more versed in natural medicine and home doctoring, and I’m happy to be able to share the story here to inspire others to be able to treat pneumonia at home, too.
For the record, I would have filled the prescription had any of the symptoms worsened: the question we always ask when leaving the doctor’s with a diagnosis like this is, “What do we watch for that signifies it’s getting worse and that we should fill the prescription?”
Have you ever used a home remedy for chest congestion or treated pneumonia at home?
You may also want to look at how essential oils from Mountain Rose Herbs can help keep your family healthy. The Practical Guide to Children’s Health and Common Sense Health are great resources as well for becoming your family’s first line of defense.
Other Natural Health Posts:
- Fighting Infection without Antibiotics
- Are Hand Sanitizers Safe?
- Get Rid of Warts Naturally
- Natural Remedies for Ear Infections
- Real Food BRATY Diet
- How We Kicked Whooping Cough
- You Probably Need a Parasite Cleanse
- Natural Pneumonia Treatments For Toddlers
- Natural Remedies for Croup
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Mountain Rose Herbs, Practical Guide to Children’s Health and Common Sense Health from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. The Miessence link is to my “store” because I can earn toward my own products by sharing them – but clearly I’m using them too, so no funny business there. Trilight Health is a March sponsor receiving their complementary mention in a post. See my full disclosure statement here.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nurse or trained medical professional of any kind, and I don’t even pretend to be one on the Internet. I don’t know much. Take this with a grain of salt, just as you would a conversation with a friend, and do your own research and consult with a doctor before treating something as serious as pneumonia at home. I’m just sharing a story, not giving medical advice.