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How to Regain Strength After Pneumonia

June 7, 2021 - Katie McCallum

If you have pneumonia, the first priority is clearing the infection causing it.

This means following your doctor's treatment plan very closely. Yes, getting plenty of rest. And, yes, taking every single pill in the bottle of antibiotics your doctor prescribed you if your pneumonia is bacterial in nature.

But, even after your primary symptoms fade away, you may be left feeling lousy, with low energy and/or dealing with a cough that just won't quit. In some cases, you may feel weak for months.

How long does it take to recover from pneumonia?

"Pneumonia is a serious illness that can take quite a toll on a person's lungs and body. It can take anywhere from a week to several months to fully recover from it," says Dr. Rayman Lee, pulmonologist at Houston Methodist.

The length of time it takes for you to recover from pneumonia is influenced by:

  • Your age
  • The severity of your illness
  • Whether you have other health conditions
  • The type of pneumonia

If you're generally healthy and have only a mild case of pneumonia, your symptoms should begin to improve one to two days after starting treatment.

"Most people with mild pneumonia are able to return to their everyday activities in a week, although fatigue and cough can linger for an entire month," says Dr. Lee.

Recovery timelines become more murky for people who have severe pneumonia.

"For more serious cases that require hospitalization, we're not only focused on clearing the infection, we're also focused on preventing or treating complications that can develop — including difficulty breathing, fluid buildup in the lungs, sepsis, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and lung abscesses," warns Dr. Lee.

Pneumonia and its complications can wreak havoc on a person's lungs and body. And, it can take anywhere from one to six months for a person to recover and regain strength after being hospitalized for pneumonia.

Why does it take so long to recover from pneumonia?

You can't see the damage pneumonia causes, but you certainly feel it.

The air sacs in your lungs become inflamed during pneumonia, leading to soreness and pain. If the infection and inflammation progress, your lungs may fill with fluid and dead lung tissue, leading to the green, yellow or even bloody mucus you cough up. This fluid may also affect how well oxygen is able to transfer into your bloodstream, leading to difficulty breathing.

"Once the infection is cleared with treatment, your body still has to deal with removing all of the fluid, damage and debris left behind in your lungs. This can take a few weeks, resulting in a lingering cough and reduced lung capacity," explains Dr. Lee. "During this time, you may find physical exertion more tiring than usual."

A more severe case of pneumonia can cause even more damage to your lungs, which can be significant and even permanent in some cases.

"After severe pneumonia, lung capacity is reduced and muscles may be weak from being so ill. Significant weight loss can further contribute to weakness and other health conditions may be aggravated due to the stress placed on the body during illness. These are all things your body will need time to recover from," says Dr. Lee.

In fact, it may take another several months for you to fully heal and regain strength.

"A person with pneumonia isn't discharged from the hospital until his or her infection is under control and vitals are stable, of course, but there's still a lot of work his or her body needs to do while recovering at home," says Dr. Lee.

How to regain your strength after pneumonia

While recovering from mild pneumonia, be sure to:

"Physical activity can help your lungs regain strength — but go slow. Start with light exercise and stop if your cough worsens or you have trouble breathing. If a light workout feels okay, you can put a little more effort into your next workout," says Dr. Lee.

However, Dr. Lee's advice for someone recovering from severe pneumonia looks quite different.

"The first thing to realize is that your body may be extremely weak after being discharged from the hospital, so you'll need to take extra care — leaning on your support network, if possible," says Dr. Lee.

Tips for regaining your strength after severe pneumonia

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Slowly start moving around once you're ready — but don't overdo it
  • Complete any (and all) treatments prescribed by your doctor
  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Quit smoking and avoid second-hand smoke
  • Limit exposure to throat irritants, including pollution and alcohol
  • Perform deep breathing exercises
  • Consult with your doctor before returning to exercise

Aim to slowly work back into your usual routine (with guidance from your doctor) and be sure to take note of any signs that the infection may be coming back.

"Pneumonia can be incredibly taxing and there's no one-size-fits-all to recovery. Some people feel better in about six weeks, but it can take several months for others to feel better after severe pneumonia," adds Dr. Lee. "Most importantly, be patient with your body."

If your recovery is prolonged, a specialized program focused on pulmonary rehabilitation may help get you back on track.

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