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What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It causes the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs to get inflamed (irritated and swollen). They may fill up with fluid or pus. This causes a variety of symptoms, which range from mild to severe.
Pneumonia is usually caused by bacteria or a virus. It can also be caused by fungi or irritants that you breathe into your lungs. How serious pneumonia is depends on many factors. These include what caused the pneumonia, your age, and your overall health.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
The symptoms of pneumonia can range from mild to severe. This depends on your risk factors and the type of pneumonia you have. Common symptoms are similar to the symptoms caused by a cold or the flu. They include:
- Bringing up mucus when you cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
You may also sweat, have a headache and feel very tired. Some people also experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
If any of these symptoms are severe, contact your healthcare provider. You should also contact your healthcare provider if you suddenly start getting worse after having a cold or the flu.
What is walking pneumonia?
Walking pneumonia is a mild case of pneumonia. It is often caused by a virus or the Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria. When you have walking pneumonia, your symptoms may not be as severe or last as long as someone who has a more serious case of pneumonia. You probably won’t need bed rest or to stay in the hospital when you have walking pneumonia.
Most cases of pneumonia are caused by:
- Bacteria are the most common cause of pneumonia in adults. They can cause pneumonia on their own, or after you’ve had a cold or the flu. Bacterial pneumonia usually only affects one area of a lung.
- Any virus that affects the respiratory tract can cause pneumonia. This includes the flu virus and the virus that causes the common cold. In children under 1 year old, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause. Viral pneumonia tends to be mild. It often gets better on its own in 1 to 3 weeks.
- Some fungal infections can lead to pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems.
You can also get pneumonia through aspiration. This is when you inhale particles into your lungs. This could be food, saliva, liquids, or vomit. It occurs most often after vomiting, and you are not strong enough to cough the particles out. The particles get infected, and you develop pneumonia\
Who is at risk of developing pneumonia?
There are many factors that can raise your risk for developing pneumonia. These include:
- Your age. People older than 65 years of age are at increased risk. Because the immune system becomes less able to fight off infections as you age. Babies and young children are also at increased risk because their immune systems have not yet fully developed yet.
- Your environment. Regularly breathing in dust, chemicals, air pollution, or toxic fumes can damage your lungs. This makes your lungs more vulnerable to infection.
- Your lifestyle. Habits such as smoking cigarettes or abusing alcohol can increase your risk. Smoking damages the lungs, while alcohol interferes with how your body fights infection
- Your immune system. If your immune system is weakened, it’s easier for you to get pneumonia because your body can’t fight off the infection. This could include people who have HIV/AIDS, have had an organ transplant, are receiving chemotherapy, or have long-term steroid use
- If you are hospitalized, especially in an intensive care unit (ICU). Being in the ICU (intensive care unit) raises your risk of pneumonia. Your risk increases if you are using a ventilator to help you breathe. Ventilators make it hard for you to cough and can trap germs that cause infection in your lungs.
- If you have recently had major surgery or a serious injury. Recovering from major surgery or injury can make it difficult for you to cough. This is the body’s quickest defense for getting particles out of the lungs. Recovery also typically requires a lot of bed rest. Lying down on your back for an extended period of time can allow fluid or mucus to gather in your lungs, giving bacteria a place to grow.
People who have any of the following are at increased risk:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart disease
- Sickle cell disease
Pneumonia can sometimes be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are the same as for a bad cold or flu. You might not think you need to go to your healthcare provider until the symptoms last for an unusually long time. Your health care provider will diagnose pneumonia based on your medical history and the results from a physical exam. They will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. They may also need to do some tests, such as a chest X-ray or a blood test. A chest X-ray can show your health care provider if you have pneumonia and how widespread the infection is. Blood and mucus tests can help your health care provider tell whether bacteria, a virus or a fungal organism is causing your pneumonia.
How can I prevent pneumonia?
You can help prevent pneumonia by doing the following:
Get the flu vaccine each year. People often develop bacterial pneumonia after a case of the flu. You can reduce this risk by getting the yearly flu shot.
- Get the pneumococcal immunization. This helps prevent pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria.
- Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking damages your lungs and makes it harder for your body to defend itself from germs and disease. If you smoke, talk to your family health care provider about quitting as soon as possible.
- Practice a healthy lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Get plenty of sleep. These things help your immune system stay strong.
- Avoid sick people. Being around people who are sick increases your risk of catching what they have.
Is there an immunization for pneumonia?
There isn’t an immunization for all types of pneumonia, but 2 vaccines are available. The first is called the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. It is recommended for all babies age 2 months or older as part of their childhood immunizations. The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is recommended for children 2 years of age and older who are at increased risk for pneumonia (such as children who have weakened immune systems), and for adults who have risk factors for pneumonia. This immunization is recommended if you:
- Are 65 years of age or older
- Abuse alcohol
- Have certain chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, sickle cell disease, or cirrhosis
- Have a weakened immune system because of (HIV)/AIDS, kidney failure or a damaged or removed spleen, a recent organ transplant, or receiving chemotherapy
- Have cochlear implants (an electronic device that helps you hear)
The pneumococcal immunizations can’t prevent all cases of pneumonia. But they can make it less likely that people who are at risk will experience the severe, and possibly life-threatening, complications of pneumonia
Treatment for pneumonia depends on several factors. These include what caused your pneumonia, how severe your symptoms are, how healthy you are overall and your age.
For bacterial pneumonia, your health care provider will probably prescribe antibiotics. Most of your symptoms should improve within a few days, although a cough can last for several weeks. Be sure to follow your health care provider’s directions carefully. Take all the antibiotic medicine that your health care provider prescribes. If you don’t, some bacteria may stay in your body. This can cause your pneumonia to come back. It can also increase your risk of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics don’t work to treat viral infections. If you have viral pneumonia, your healthcare provider will likely talk to you about ways to treat your symptoms. Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are available to lower fever, relieve pain and ease your cough. However, some coughing is okay because it can help clear your lungs. Be sure to talk to your health care provider before you take a cough suppressant.
If a fungus is causing your pneumonia, your health care provider may prescribe an antifungal medicine.
If your case of pneumonia is severe, you may need to be hospitalized. If you are experiencing shortness of breath, you may be given oxygen to help your breathing. You might also receive antibiotics intravenously (through an IV). People who have weakened immune systems, heart disease or lung conditions, and people who were already very sick before developing pneumonia are most likely to be hospitalized. Babies, young children, and adults who are 65 years of age and older are also at increased risk.
What can I do at home to feel better?
In addition to taking any antibiotics and/or medicine your health care provider prescribes, you should also:
- Get lots of rest. Rest will help your body fight the infection.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids will keep you hydrated and can help loosen the mucus in your lungs. Try water, warm tea and clear soups.
- Stop smoking if you smoke, and avoid second hand smoke. Smoke can make your symptoms worse. Smoking also increases your risk of developing pneumonia and other lung problems in the future. You should also avoid lit fireplaces or other areas where the air may not be clean.
- Stay home from school or work until your symptoms go away. This usually means waiting until your fever breaks and you aren’t coughing up mucus. Ask your health care provider when it’s okay for you to return to school or work.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier or take a warm bath to help clear your lungs and make it easier for you to breathe.
Your healthcare provider may schedule a follow-up appointment after they diagnose you with pneumonia. At this visit, your health care provider might take another chest X-ray to make sure the pneumonia infection is clearing up. Keep in mind that chest X-rays can take months to return to normal. However, if your symptoms are not improving, your health care provider may decide to try another form of treatment.
Although you may be feeling better, it’s important to keep your follow-up appointment, especially if you smoke. The infection can still be in your lungs even if you’re no longer experiencing symptoms.
What are possible complications of pneumonia?
Complications of pneumonia include:
- Pleural effusion. This is when fluid builds up in the layers of tissue between your lungs and the wall of your chest. This fluid can become infected. This can make breathing very difficult. To drain the fluid, a tube may need to be placed between your lungs and your chest wall, or you may need surgery.
- Bacteria in the bloodstream. This can occur when the pneumonia infection in your lungs spreads to your blood. This increases the risk that the infection will spread to other organs in your body. Bacteria in the bloodstream are treated with antibiotics.
- Lung abscesses. Sometimes pus can collect in your lungs and cause abscesses. These are usually treated with antibiotics. Sometimes the abscesses need to be drained with a needle or surgically removed
People who have heart or lung problems, people who smoke, and people who are 65 years of age and older are more likely to experience complications from pneumonia.
When should I contact my health care provider?
Pneumonia can be life-threatening if left untreated, especially for certain at risk people. You should contact your health care provider if you have a cough that won’t go away, shortness of breath, chest pain and a fever. You should also contact your health care provider if you suddenly begin to feel worse after having a cold or the flu.