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Mycoplasma: All you need to know about walking pneumonia

By: Amy Greenburg

Mycoplasma’s symptoms might match the flu, but the illness can drag for weeks

“Walking pneumonia” may sound like something out of a zombie flick, but trust us – although it makes sufferers a bit miserable, mycoplasma is actually the mildest form of pneumonia. International Medical Clinic’s Dr Gina Dahel explains the illness, how it spreads and what we can do to reduce our risk of catching it.

What exactly is mycoplasma?
Mycoplasma infection is a respiratory illness caused by mycoplasma pneumoniae, a microscopic bacterial organism. The infection is contagious; it is spread through contact with droplets from the noses and throats of infected people, especially when they cough and sneeze.

Though the infection is known in medical terms as “atypical pneumonia”, as the disease differs from more serious pneumonia cases caused by typical bacteria, and “community-acquired pneumonia”, it’s more commonly called “walking pneumonia”, since most patients are able to function quite normally.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms usually develop two to three weeks after exposure to the organism, and progress slowly over a period of two to four days. Initial symptoms typically include fever, sore throat, fatigue, aching muscles and dizzy spells; a dry cough, often in spasms, is the hallmark of the infection. Early stages of the illness can be very similar to those of the common cold or even influenza, but can be persistent and linger for weeks, especially the cough and tiredness.

Most cases are diagnosed by clinical history on the basis of typical symptoms. A blood test is sometimes done, ideally a week after the onset of symptoms.

What are the risk factors?
Anyone can get the illness, but it most often affects older children and young adults. People at highest risk for mycoplasma pneumonia include those living or working in crowded areas such as schools and shelters for the homeless, although many people who contract it have no identifiable risk factor.

How’s it treated and what’s the recovery time?
As it is a self-limiting infection, treatment is usually not necessary; in more serious cases, antibiotics can be effective. Most people recover completely, even without antibiotics, although antibiotics may speed up the recovery process. In untreated children and adults, coughing and weakness can persist for up to a month. The disease can be more serious in elderly patients and those with a weakened immune system.


Scrub like you mean it

While there’s no vaccine to prevent mycoplasma, there are simple measures that can be taken to reduce your chances of contracting it.

• Cover your mouth and nose with tissues when sneezing and coughing – and throw them away after use!
• Wash your hands frequently – good hand hygiene can go a long way in reducing the risk of transmission.
• Consult your doctor as soon as you suspect you have mycoplasma – this will help keep it from spreading further.

An Expat’s Account

EL’s very own Rachael Wheeler shares her first-hand experience of mycoplasma.

When a cold (well, what I thought was a cold) refused to leave me alone after about two weeks, a few ladies in the office asked if I had mycoplasma. ‘A who?’ I thought. ‘What is that, some sort of worm situation?’ ‘Nah, it’s just a bad cold.’ Another week later and my cough was hitting ‘90-year-old-man-who-smokes-40-a-day’ levels. It was a thousand-fold worse by night; as soon as my head hit that pillow, countless tiny feathers started dancing their way up and down my throat.

So, off I trotted to the doctor. The verdict? Mycoplasma. The doctor tried to give me lozenges, syrup, throat relaxants, sleeping tablets and antibiotics, which came to about $200. I took the antibiotics and syrup, and ran. Well, slow-walked – running is out when you have the equivalent lung function of a dying mouse.

To be honest, it was pretty bad for another four weeks or so, particularly at night. It’s not completely disabling – mine wasn’t, anyway – but the lack of sleep, deep cough and inability to exercise (I tried a short run and found myself doubled-over and dry heaving about 80 metres down the road) start to get seriously annoying. And, I should admit, I passed the infection on to three others because I didn’t rest or wait long enough before attempting to get back to normal life.

The infection didn’t just vanish on the drugs; I took three courses of antibiotics (and caved into taking sleeping tablets) before the cough finally faded away, allowing me to sleep in peace. (My other half had a few nights in the spare room during the worst coughing stage.) It still affected my running for another couple of weeks after that, but it drifted away eventually.