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The pneumonia quietly stalking small children and young adults

Severe mycoplasma pneumonia can require supplemental oxygen.

Severe mycoplasma pneumonia can require supplemental oxygen. Photo: Getty

Most of the illnesses we associate with winter are viruses, such as seasonal influenza, Covid-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

It’s possible to become infected with two or more of these viruses at the same time. None of them can be treated with antibiotics.

But there is another respiratory infection that can turn very nasty, very quickly – and it’s been on the rise in small children and young adults.

It’s caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae, an oddball bacteria that affects the respiratory tract (throat, windpipe, and lungs).

Most infections tend to be mild and can be managed safely at home without medicine.

When affecting the lungs the disease is sometimes called “walking pneumonia”.

However, occasionally lung infections can turn severe, requiring IV antibiotics, hospitalisation and supplemental oxygen.

In January, hundreds of Australian children were hospitalised in one week with mycoplasma pneumonia.

Mycoplasmas are an oddball form of bacteria because they don’t have cell walls. This renders penicillin and some other antibiotics ineffective, because they’re designed to attack cell walls.

However, a class of drugs known as macrolide antibiotics, including  Erythromycin, are effective against mycoplasmas.

Stealth infection

Mycoplasma – similar to winter viruses – is spread through contact with droplets in the coughs and sneezes of infected people.

However, transmission of mycoplasma is thought to require prolonged close contact with an infected person.

Hence, infections flare up in families, workplaces and classrooms. But the spread of infection is slow.

Most people who spend a short amount of time with someone who is sick from mycoplasma don’t get infected.

The contagious period isn’t clearly known. While it’s thought to be less than 10 days, people can be infectious for up to 20 days.

Mycoplasma can also be spread by touching a surface or object that the droplets have landed on.

Someone can be infected and show no symptoms, but still be able to spread it to others.

Appearance of symptoms also varies

According to NSW Health, symptoms usually appear from one to four weeks after infection. Symptoms may last for several weeks.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough (that may last for weeks or months)
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Feeling tired
  • Shortness of breath.

Children younger than five years of age may have different symptoms to older children and adults. These symptoms may include:

  • Sneezing
  • A stuffy or runny rose
  • Watery eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea.

Mycoplasma infection is diagnosed by a nose and throat swab. Sometimes a doctor may also do a blood test or a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia.

People at higher risk

Mycoplasma can infect anyone. However, infections are most common in school-aged children and young adults.

If you live in the same house as someone with mycoplasma infection you are at higher risk of getting infected.

Infection with mycoplasma is usually mild but can be serious for people who:

  • Are recovering from another respiratory viral illness
    or already have lung disease
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Live and work in a crowded setting because this can increase the risk of getting mycoplasma infection
  • Are in crowded settings including schools, colleges, and dormitory facilities.

The best protection from infection is to practice good hand hygiene and regularly wash your hands.

Topics: Health
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