What Is a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed

Klebsiella pneumoniae is a bacterium that normally lives inside human intestines, where it doesn't cause disease.

But if K. pneumoniae gets into other areas of the body, it can lead to a range of illnesses, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, meningitis, and urinary tract infections.

Most cases of K. pneumoniae infection occur in a hospital setting.

Signs and Symptoms of a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

The symptoms of a K. pneumoniae infection differ depending on where the infection is located, and are similar to symptoms of the same diseases caused by other microbes.

For instance, meningitis from K. pneumoniae produces the hallmark symptoms of bacterial meningitis, including fever, confusion, neck stiffness, and sensitivity to bright lights.

Bloodstream infections (bacteremia and sepsis) from klebsiella can cause fever, chills, fatigue, light-headedness, and altered mental states.

Pneumonia from K. pneumoniae can result in:

Causes and Risk Factors of a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

K. pneumoniae infections are typically "nosocomial" infections, which means they're contracted in a hospital or healthcare setting.

People who have weakened immune systems, or sick or injured people who are undergoing procedures for various health issues, are more likely to get a K. pneumoniae infection than the general population.

Healthy people usually don't have to worry about getting K. pneumoniae infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The bacteria are not airborne, so you can't contract a K. pneumoniae infection by breathing the same air as an infected person.

Instead, K. pneumoniae is spread through direct person-to-person contact, such as when someone with contaminated hands touches a wound.

Infections can also occur through the use of contaminated medical equipment. For example, people on ventilators can contract Klebsiella pneumonia if breathing tubes are contaminated with the bacteria. Similarly, the use of contaminated intravenous catheters can lead to bloodstream infections.

Long courses of antibiotics can also increase a person's risk of getting a klebsiella infection.

How Is a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection Diagnosed?

Klebsiella infections are typically diagnosed with a lab test that examines a sample of the infected tissue, such as blood, urine, or sputum (a mixture of saliva and mucus).

Imaging tests, such as ultrasounds, X-rays, and CT scans, may also help your doctor with the diagnosis. For example, pneumonia caused by klebsiella typically leads to certain changes in the lungs visible on a chest X-ray, like haziness or nodules that might involve an entire lobe of a lung or lining of the lung.

Along with the blood tests most commonly used to identify the klebsiella infection, your doctor will also order susceptibility tests, or sensitivity analyses, to determine which antibiotics are likely to be effective at treating the infection.

Duration of a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

The duration of treatment for klebsiella infection varies from a few weeks to several months, depending on the individual, location of infection, and how early the infection is caught.

Typically, the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the outcome.

Treatment and Medication Options for a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

Doctors typically use antibiotics to treat K. pneumoniae infections. But the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria has complicated matters.

Some "superbug" strains of K. pneumoniae are resistant to most antibiotics, including carbapenems, which are considered last-resort drugs.

These bacteria produce enzymes called Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemases (KPC), which render the antibiotics ineffective.

These hardy, high-threat-level microbes are part of a group called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE.

To treat CRE, doctors rely on several powerful antibiotics that still have some effectiveness against the bacteria, particularly when used in combination, according to a 2015 report published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

These drugs include:

Prevention of a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

The CDC has guidelines for healthcare providers to reduce risk of hospital-acquired infection like klebsiella. Safety measures include frequent hand-washing and use of hand sanitizer, as well as the wearing of gloves and gowns to enter the rooms of patients who have klebsiella-related illnesses.

To prevent the spread of germs, patients should also wash their hands frequently, including:

  • Before touching their eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Before preparing or eating food
  • After using the bathroom
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose
  • Before and after changing wound dressings and bandages
  • After touching surfaces in the hospital like bedside tables, bed rails, doorknobs, remote controls, and the phone

Complications of a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

If K. pneumoniae gets into other areas of the body, it can cause a range of different illnesses.

These include:

  • Pneumonia When K. pneumoniae enters the respiratory tract, it can lead to bacterial pneumonia, or an infection of the lungs. Symptoms include chest pain when you breathe or cough, fever and chills, shortness of breath, fatigue, a cough that may produce phlegm, and changes in mental awareness. It is most serious in older adults, young children, and people with a compromised immune system.

  • Bloodstream infections Pneumoniae that enters the bloodstream can cause bacteremia, or an infection of the blood. Bacteremia needs to be treated right away, as these infections can progress to sepsis and septic shock, which can turn deadly. If you’ve recently had a medical or dental procedure or are in the hospital and experience a sudden fever and chills, tell your doctor right away.

  • Urinary tract infections (UTI) When pneumonia enters the urinary tract, it can lead to a UTI. A UTI can affect any part of the urinary system, including the urethra, kidneys, bladder, and ureters. Symptoms include a strong, frequent need to urinate, burning sensation during urination, pelvic pain, and cloudy, bloody, or strong-smelling urine. Women are at a greater risk of getting a UTI than men.

  • Wound and surgical site infections If K. pneumoniae enters a break in the skin, it can lead to a skin or soft tissue infection. Typically, this happens with wounds caused by injury or after surgery. Symptoms can include fever, blisters, fatigue, and pain at the wound or surgical site.
  • Meningitis Bacterial meningitis can occur when pneumoniae enters the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is a very serious infection that can be life-threatening. The bacteria can cause the tissues around the brain to swell, interfering with blood flow. This can result in paralysis or stroke. Symptoms, including high fever, headaches, and stiff neck, come on quickly, usually within 24 hours of infection. If left untreated, bacterial meningitis can lead to death.

Research and Statistics: How Many People Get Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infections?

A study published in the American Journal of Medicine estimated the overall annual population incidence of klebsiella infection is 7.1 per 100,000. The researchers found elderly people and men were at highest risk of infection.

According to the National Institutes of Health Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, klebsiella is responsible for 8 percent of all hospital-acquired infections.

Furthermore, a CDC report found carbapenem-resistant klebsiella is responsible for about 7,900 infections and 520 deaths each year.

Related Conditions to a Klebsiella Pneumoniae Infection

Carbapenem-resistant klebsiella is one of the most common CREs in the United States. The other is carbapenem-resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli).

E. coli normally lives in the intestines, where it does not cause illness. But like klebsiella, when it gets into the respiratory tract, bloodstream, or urinary tract, it can cause dangerous and even deadly infections.

Some strains of E. coli in cattle can also cause intestinal infections in humans.

According to the CDC, carbapenem-resistant E. coli is responsible for an estimated 1,400 infections and 90 deaths each year.

Resources We Love

Favorite Organizations for Essential Information About Klebsiella Pneumoniae

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC provides all the information you need about what causes klebsiella infections, how it is spread, treatment, and what you can do to prevent infection.

National Institutes of Health Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

GARD is another great resource to learn all the facts about Klebsiella pneumoniae infections. You can also access a database of clinical trials that are related to klebsiella and read the descriptions of each study. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before choosing to participate in a clinical study.

Additional reporting by Joseph Bennington-Castro.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Klebsiella Infection. National Institutes of Health Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD).
  2. Klebsiella Pneumoniae in Healthcare Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 24, 2010.
  3. Klebsiella Pneumonia. StatPearls. March 25, 2020.
  4. Chronic Klebsiella Pneumonia: A Rare Manifestation of Klebsiella Pneumonia. Journal of Thoracic Disease. September 2015.
  5. Treatment Options for Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae Infections. Open Forum Infectious Diseases. April 2015.
  6. Pneumonia Symptoms and Causes. Mayo Clinic. June 13, 2020.
  7. Blood Poisoning: When to See a Doctor. Mayo Clinic. April 22, 2020.
  8. Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) Symptoms and Causes. Mayo Clinic. October 14, 2020.
  9. Bacterial Meningitis. Cleveland Clinic. July 24, 2019.
  10. Incidence, Risk Factors, and Outcomes of Klebsiella Pneumoniae Bacteremia. American Journal of Medicine. September 2009.
  11. Antibiotic Resistant Threats in the United States, 2013. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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