White Lung Pneumonia_rivantosh edupedia

What Is White Lung Pneumonia? Doctors Explain Signs and Symptoms

Last Updated: 11 December 2023By

Health officials in Ohio are warning about an increase in pneumonia cases in children. The state has seen 145 cases in kids aged 3 to 14 years old, and some are referring to the condition as “white lung syndrome,” or “white lung” pneumonia.

The news is eerily similar to reports of an increase in cases of pediatric pneumonia in children in China, but officials from Ohio’s Warren County Health District stress that they’re unrelated. “There has been zero evidence of this outbreak being connected to other outbreaks, either statewide, nationally, or internationally,” the organization said in a news release.“While the number of cases is higher this year, the severity is similar to previous years.” Officials also said that most of these cases have involved kids who are able to recover at home and are successfully treated with antibiotics.

Meet the experts: Daniel Ganjian, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA; Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York; Gustavo Cumbo-Nacheli, M.D., a pulmonologist with Corewell Health

But what is white lung syndrome and how concerned about this should people be? Here’s the deal.

What does “white lung” mean?

Despite references to “white lung” and “white lung syndrome” floating around right now, it’s not a medical term, says Daniel Ganjian, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

“It is a non-specific term that has been used to describe pneumonia that appears white on chest X-rays,” he says. This white imaging can be caused by a range of things, including fluid buildup in the air sacs of the lungs, inflammation of the lung tissue, and scarring of the lung tissue, Dr. Ganjian says.

What is “white lung” pneumonia?

White lung pneumonia is not a specific type of pneumonia, Dr. Ganjian says. “It is simply a term that has been used to describe pneumonia that appears white on chest X-rays,” he explains.

“Our lungs are filled with air and, when you look at a normal chest X-ray, the air is black,” explains Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. “When you get a pneumonia parts of your lungs may fill up with fluid and parts that should be black or dark on an X-ray look white.”

White lung pneumonia can be caused by a wide range of things. “Bacteria is the most common cause of seeing this white on a chest X-ray, but you can also see this on a chest X-ray if someone has pneumonia from RSV, COVID, or influenza,” Dr. Russo says.

While “white lung” is being used lately to refer to pneumonia, other things can lead to this effect, says Gustavo Cumbo-Nacheli, M.D., a pulmonologist with Corewell Health. “Many conditions could affect the respiratory system and cause abnormal ‘whitening’ of some lung areas,” he says.

The whiteness can appear in scans for days to weeks “until the body can ‘clean up’ the areas affected,” Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli says.

Signs of “white lung” pneumonia

Signs and symptoms of white lung pneumonia can vary based on what caused the illness in the first place, Dr. Ganjian says. However, these are the most common pneumonia symptoms, according to the American Lung Association (ALA):

    • Cough, which can bring up greenish, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Fever, sweating, and shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in small children
  • Confusion, especially in older people

Bacterial pneumonia—which is the most common type of pneumonia—tends to be more serious than other types, the ALA noted.

Causes of “white lung” syndrome

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Common causes of bacterial pneumonia are Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) and Mycoplasma pneumoniae, the CDC says. When pneumonia is caused by a virus, it’s usually due to the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), the CDC says.

White Lung Pneumonia_RE

“Fungal pneumonias are unusual in healthy hosts,” Dr. Russo says.

“White lung” pneumonia treatment

In terms of the outbreak in Ohio, it seems to be driven by Streptococcus pneumoniae, mycoplasma, and adenovirus, Dr. Russo says.

In general, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says you can expect the following treatments if you’re diagnosed with pneumonia:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia
  • Antiviral medicine for viral pneumonia
  • Antifungal medicines for fungal pneumonia
  • Over-the-counter medicines for fever and muscle pain

If your pneumonia is serious, you may need to be treated at a hospital, Dr. Ganjian says. Treatment there may involve antibiotics and fluids through an IV line, oxygen therapy to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood, and being put on a ventilator.

“White lung” pneumonia prevention

There are a few things you can do to lower the risk of developing pneumonia, Dr. Ganjian says. Those include:

    • Getting vaccinated against the flu and pneumococcal disease (if you’re eligible)
    • Washing your hands frequently
    • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
    • Avoiding smoking

Eating healthy and getting regular physical activity can also keep your immune system strong, lowering the risk you’ll develop pneumonia, the NHLBI says.

If you have symptoms of white lung syndrome, contact your doctor. They should be able to guide you on the next steps.

Try 200+ at home workout videos from Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Prevention, and more on All Out Studio free for 14 days!