The thought of pneumonia can be scary. While the statistics of pneumonia fatalities are improving, it is still considered a very serious illness. In the United States alone, pneumonia is responsible for 1.1 million hospital stays lasting 5 days or longer. It is most serious in adults over 65 and infants. Pneumonia is often a bacterial infection of the lungs, but around one-third are viral. Pneumonia vaccinations greatly reduce the risk and are on the rise among elderly adults. This article will help you understand pneumonia, how to deal with it, and how to prevent it.
Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It is usually a secondary infection stemming from infection elsewhere in the body, usually the upper respiratory tract. This happens because the nose and upper respiratory tract normally take care of germs before they get to the lungs. There are certain circumstances that may cause them to get down there anyways including; weakened immunity to infections, an overwhelming upper respiratory infection with a large amount of germs, or a pre-existing condition like, asthma.
When an upper respiratory infection turns into a lower respiratory infection, inflammation sets in and the body sends in white blood cells to try to combat the germ invasion. The lungs form excess mucus to try and protect the tissues from damage and they become overwhelmed with fluid. This lowers the amount of oxygen sent into the bloodstream and can cause complications.
You can get pneumonia in one or both lungs or in just a tiny part of one lung.
There are several different types of pneumonia including:
Bacterial Pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is usually secondary after you have recovered from influenza or even a minor cold. The infection usually starts in the nose or throat and drops into the lungs if your immune system is weak. Anyone can get this type of pneumonia.
Viral Pneumonia. Viral pneumonia stems from the upper respiratory tract and this is the most common type with children. They are short lived and usually not serious. For some, viral pneumonia can be severe if caused by influenza. It can prevent air from moving in and out of the lungs and causes “air hunger.” Secondary bacterial pneumonia can result on top of the existing viral pneumonia to further complicate the illness, but this is rare and only seen in people with underlying health conditions.
Mycoplasma Pneumonia. Mycoplasma are germs that look like both viruses and bacteria. The pneumonia is most often mild, but can become complicated in people with weak immune systems. They are more common in children and young adults.
Tuberculosis Pneumonia. Pneumonia caused by TB isn’t very common, but very serious if it does occur. It needs to be treated very early on to prevent complications or death.
Aspiration Pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia happens when fluids, foods, or other irritants are inhaled into the lungs.
Pneumocystis Carinii. This is thought to be a fungal infection that causes pneumonia in AIDS patients. It is highly treatable if caught early, but can return. Many doctors choose to treat this type of pneumonia long-term to prevent it from coming back.
The symptoms of pneumonia include:
Severe productive cough (Sputum is green, yellow, or bloody)
Chills and Fever
Shortness of Breath
Chest Pain with Cough
White nail beds
In older patients, you may notice confused or disordered thinking.
The following groups are at higher risk for pneumonia:
Infants under the age of 2
Adults over the age of 65
Lung Disease (Asthma, Cystic Fibrosis, COPD)
Sickle Cell Anemia
History of Organ Transplant
Inability to swallow or cough
Recent viral infection
Exposure to air pollutants or chemicals
If you suspect pneumonia, see your doctor right away. He or she will ask about any recent illness, exposure to illness or irritants, and your medical history. They will then perform the following:
Examination. The doctor will listen to your lungs to check for sounds that indicate you have fluid in your airways.
Chest X-Rays. These will look for the presence of fluid in your chest.
Lab Testing. The doctor can order a Complete Blood Count to look for the presence of white blood cells that signal a bacterial infection. They can also tell if you have a viral infection.
Sputum Culture. The doctor may have you cough up some of the phlegm in your lungs to send out for testing. This is especially helpful if you are not responding to treatment and they need to find out what antibiotic will work for you.
Pulse Oximetry. This will tell how well your lungs are processing oxygen. Oxygen saturation needs to be above 90 percent, but in pneumonia can often fall below that guideline. Some people need to be in the hospital on supplemental oxygen until they are feeling better.
Bronchoscopy. This isn’t a common test, but the doctor may order one if you are not responding to treatment. This can check for foreign bodies in your lungs or check for anything else that may be causing the pneumonia. A thin tube is passed through your nose into your lungs. There is a tiny camera on the end allowing the doctor to see into your airways.
Treatment for viral pneumonia is just supportive to relieve your symptoms. The virus will clear on its own in days to a few weeks and the cough can last a lot longer. The treatment for bacterial pneumonia includes:
Pain and Fever Medications
Nebulizer Treatments (Medications you inhale to open your airways)
If you do not respond well to treatment at home, you may need to be hospitalized for the following complications:
Age over 65 or under 2
Low blood pressure
Low oxygen levels
Fast heart rate
If pneumonia is not caught and treated early, complications can develop. This is more common in babies, the elderly, and people with other health conditions. Complications include:
Sepsis (The infection spreads to the bloodstream)
Respiratory distress and/or failure
Abscess in the lungs
These things can be fatal and may require treatment with a ventilator in the ICU setting.
If you have pneumonia, follow these tips to help you get better fast and relieve symptoms:
Drink Plenty of Fluids. Dehydration causes the secretions in your lungs to become too thick and makes it harder to breathe. Getting enough fluids will help your body fight off the infection better.
Rest. Get enough rest, but not too much time in bed. You need to move around to help your lungs clear. Steer clear of heavy work and exercise until you feel up to it.
Take All of your Medications the Doctor Prescribed. Even if you feel better, take all of your antibiotics to prevent a relapse.
Do NOT Smoke and Avoid Second Hand Smoke. Smoke will irritate your lungs. It is very dangerous to smoke with pneumonia.
Be Careful with Cough Medications. Talk to your doctor before using cough medicine. Cough syrup that contains an expectorant can make more mucus and pairing that with a cough suppressant can cause this mucus to sit in your lungs. Your doctor can tell you the best way to relieve the cough, but it really is needed to clear any fluid.
Change Positions and Cough Every Two Hours. Change your position and cough every two hours. This helps to prevent the secretions from sitting in one spot and helps clear it from your body.
You can help prevent pneumonia with the following tips:
Take your yearly flu shot and a pneumonia shot
Stay out of crowds during flu and pneumonia season
Practice good hand washing
See your doctor if you have an upper respiratory infection.
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