Mycoplasma Infections (Mycoplasma pneumoniae)

Updated: Jul 24, 2017
  • Author: Ken B Waites, MD; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Mycoplasma species are the smallest free-living organisms. These organisms are unique among prokaryotes in that they lack a cell wall, a feature largely responsible for their biologic properties such as their lack of a reaction to Gram stain and their lack of susceptibility to many commonly prescribed antimicrobial agents, including beta-lactams. Mycoplasmal organisms are usually associated with mucosal surfaces, residing extracellularly in the respiratory and urogenital tracts. They rarely penetrate the submucosa, except in the case of immunosuppression or instrumentation, when they may invade the bloodstream and disseminate to different organs and tissues throughout the body.

Although scientists have isolated at least 17 species of Mycoplasma from humans, 4 types of organisms are responsible for most clinically significant infections that may come to the attention of practicing physicians. These species are Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Mycoplasma hominis, Mycoplasma genitalium, and Ureaplasma species. The focus of this article is infections caused by M pneumoniae; articles on Ureaplasma infections (eg, Ureaplasma Infection) and genital mycoplasmal infections contain discussions of infections caused by other mycoplasmal species.



M pneumoniae is perhaps best known as the cause of community-acquired walking or atypical pneumonia, but the most frequent clinical syndrome caused by this organism is actually tracheobronchitis or bronchiolitis, often accompanied by upper respiratory tract manifestations. Pneumonia develops in only 5-10% of persons who are infected. Acute pharyngitis may also occur. [1] Recent evidence has also implicated M pneumoniae with prolonged ventilator course and hypoxemia in adults with suspected ventilator-associated pneumonia. However, the presence of other microorganisms in many of these patients makes it difficult to assess the true role of M pneumoniae as a causative pathogen in this setting. [2]

After inhalation of respiratory aerosols, the organism attaches to host epithelial cells in the respiratory tract. The P1 adhesin and other accessory proteins mediate attachment, followed by induction of ciliostasis, local inflammation that consists primarily of perivascular and peribronchial infiltration of mononuclear leukocytes, and tissue destruction that may be mediated by liberation of hydrogen peroxide. Recently, M pneumoniae has been shown to produce an exotoxin that is also believed to play a major role in the damage to the respiratory epithelium that occurs during acute infection. [3] This toxin, named the community-acquired respiratory disease toxin (CARDS) is an ADP-ribosylating and vacuolating cytotoxin similar to pertussis toxin. [4]

Evidence from animal models of M pneumoniae infection have proven that recombinant CARDS toxin results in significant pulmonary inflammation, release of proinflammatory cytokines, and airway dysfunction. [5] Variation in CARDS toxin production among M pneumoniae strains may be correlated with the range of severity of pulmonary disease observed among patients. [4] The organism also has the ability to exist and possibly replicate intracellularly, which may contribute to chronicity of illness and difficult eradication. [1] Additionally, acute mycoplasmal respiratory tract infection may be associated with exacerbations of chronic bronchitis and asthma. [6] More extensive information on the pathogenesis of mycoplasmal respiratory infections is available in review articles and book chapters. [7, 1, 6]

Spread of infection throughout households is common, although person-to-person transmission is slower than for many other common bacterial respiratory tract infections; close contact appears necessary. The mean incubation period is 20-23 days. The organism may persist in the respiratory tract for several months, and sometimes for years in patients who are immunosuppressed, after initial infection. [8]




United States

Researchers estimate that more than 2 million cases of M pneumoniae infections occur annually. M pneumoniae causes approximately 20% of community-acquired pneumonias that require hospitalization and an even greater proportion of those that do not require hospitalization. M pneumoniae may exist endemically in large urban areas. Epidemics occur every 3-7 years, with the incidence varying considerably from year to year. Slow spread throughout households is common, with a mean incubation period of 20-23 days. Disease tends to not be seasonal, except for a slight increase in late summer and early fall. [1]


M pneumoniae infections occur both endemically and in cyclic epidemics in Japan and several European countries, similar to what occurs in the United States. Less information is available for tropical or polar countries; however, based on seroprevalence studies, the disease also occurs in these regions, suggesting that climate and geography are not important determinants in the epidemiology of M pneumoniae infections. [1]


As the term walking pneumonia implies, the great majority of M pneumoniae respiratory tract infections are mild and self-limited, although administration of antimicrobials hastens clinical resolution. Hospitalization is sometimes necessary, but recovery is almost always complete and without sequelae. Studies have indicated that M pneumoniae is second only to Streptococcus pneumoniae as a cause of bacterial pneumonia that requires hospitalization in elderly adults. [9] Subclinical infections may occur in 20% of adults infected with M pneumoniae, suggesting that some degree of immunity may contribute to the failure of clinical symptoms in some instances. [1]

Recent evidence suggests that M pneumoniae disease is sometimes much more severe than appreciated, even in otherwise healthy children and adults. [6] Severe disease is more common in persons with underlying disease or immunosuppression. Detection of CARDS toxin or antitoxin antibodies in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid obtained from persons with suspected ventilator-associated pneumonias in association with prolonged ventilator course and hypoxemia suggest this organism may be of considerable significance among trauma patients in intensive care units. [2]

Children with sickle cell disease and functional asplenia may be at greater risk for severe respiratory tract disease due to M pneumoniae. While reports describe fatal cases of mycoplasmal pneumonia, the overall mortality rate is extremely low, probably less than 0.1%.


No racial predilection is apparent.


Available studies indicate no sexual predilection for M pneumoniae disease.


M pneumoniae has long been associated with pneumonias in children aged 5-9 years, adolescents, and young adults. Infection is particularly common among college students and military recruits who are likely to live together in close proximity. M pneumoniae may be the most common agent causing bacterial pneumonia in such populations.

In recent years, M pneumoniae infection has been common in persons older than 65 years, accounting for as much as 15% of community-acquired pneumonia cases in persons in this age group.

The common misconception that M pneumoniae disease is rare among very young populations and among older adults has led to physician failure to consider the organism in the differential diagnoses of respiratory tract infections in persons in these age groups. Physicians should always consider M pneumoniae as a cause of pneumonia in persons of all ages, including children younger than 5 years. Although M pneumoniae disease in infants is somewhat uncommon, when it is present, it can be severe. [10]