Healthy Living

From Whispers to Wisdom: Clearing the Air about “White Lung” and Pneumonia

Dec. 8, 2023

If you’ve been keeping up with recent health news, you may have heard about yet another respiratory illness to contend with this time of year.

Since August 2023, Ohio has witnessed a spike in pneumonia cases among children ages three to 14, prompting health officials to deem it an outbreak. When reporting on the topic, many media outlets and online communities are referring to the illness as “white lung.”

Dr. Mary Caserta, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, prefers not to use the term and encourages parents not to be alarmed if they hear it in conversation or on social media.

Is “white lung disease” a real thing?

X-ray of lungs demonstrating a case of viral pneumonia

“The phrase ‘white lung’ is not a medical term or condition,” says Dr. Caserta.

One reason this term might’ve caught on is because of the way pneumonia appears on a routine x-ray. Infected lungs will present in an x-ray with increased white areas on or around the lungs—a well-recognized appearance of the infection on x-ray.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs that causes air sacs to be filled with fluid. Most commonly, pneumonia develops after a virus or infection, but can also be caused by certain bacteria or rarely by fungi.

Cases of pneumonia range in likelihood and severity depending on age, pre-existing health conditions, and use of tobacco products. Often, cases are mild and don’t require hospitalization or bed rest. These instances are commonly referred to as “walking pneumonia.”

The burning question: Is pneumonia contagious?

While bacterial and viral pneumonia are contagious, fungal pneumonia is not. The spread typically occurs through coughing, sneezing, or close contact with an infected person.

child mask

Dr. Caserta reassures the public that the recent pneumonia uptick isn't cause for undue concern, attributing the unique respiratory landscape to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most respiratory viruses have a seasonal pattern, and pneumonia in children is more common in the fall and winter.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a decrease in infections in children from other typical respiratory germs.

“So far, it appears as though the increased number of cases of pneumonia reported in Ohio is due to the usual causes of infection. These infections are occurring this year during the typical time but perhaps at higher numbers due to the decreased cases during the pandemic.”

When should my child be checked for pneumonia?

If you or your child has the flu, the common cold, or other respiratory illnesses, there is a risk of developing pneumonia. While you can always call your primary care provider or pediatrician with concerns, there are a few pneumonia symptoms that indicate infection.

  • Fast, difficult breathing
  • Persistent cough
  • Chest pains
  • Loss of appetite
  • Severe, shaking chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Tiredness, weakness
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you or your child have these symptoms, contact your provider.

If you have already paid a sick visit to the doctor and later notice symptoms are worsening, or a cough is lasting longer than 7 to 10 days, reach out again as you may need to test for pneumonia.

Navigating the sea of information

Copy of On-Demand Video Visits

In a time of consistent online chatter, deciphering fact from fiction is crucial, especially when it comes to health. Try to focus on reliable, trusted sources for personal and public health information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

URMC offers a medical library with a variety of tools to help locate accurate, trusted medical information. Our “Ask a Librarian” tool is available to help answer questions or find health information.

Never be afraid to reach out to your primary care provider if concerns arise.