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HomeHealth A-Z Pneumonia
Pneumonia is not usually something you get from someone else, but a disease that develops in people with weakened immune systems often for no known reason.



Definition of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that is usually caused by a virus, bacteria, fungus, or an inhaled chemical irritant.

Description of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a common disease that affects over three million people in the US each year. There are many types of pneumonia that can range in severity from mild to life-threatening, depending on the organism causing the infection as well as a persons age and overall health. With appropriate treatment and antibiotics, most people recover from pneumonia. About five percent of people will die from the disease, however, making pneumonia the sixth leading cause of death in the US.

The microorganisms that can cause pneumonia are everywhere, but most times the body is able to keep these bacteria, viruses, and other organisms out of the lungs. Sometimes though these microorganisms get past the body's defenses and find their way into the air sacs in the lung. The white bloods cells of the immune system than begin to attack the invading organisms, the air sacs become inflamed and filled with fluid, and it becomes difficult to breathe.

When a person develops pneumonia that isn't severe enough to require bed rest or hospitalization, it is often called walking pneumonia. The symptoms are often mild and flu-like and appear very gradually. Some people with these symptoms may not even seek medical care because they don't realize that they have pneumonia. Walking pneumonia is usually caused by a bacteria known as mycoplasma. Mycoplasma pneumonia spreads easily in groups of people and commonly affects children in child-care centers and school. Fortunately mycoplasma pneumonia (walking pneumonia) responds well to antibiotics.

Causes and Risk Factors of Pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungus, or chemical irritants. There are many types of bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia, as well as certain types of fungus and many chemicals and pollutants, including air pollution and toxic fumes. The body is often able to keep these organisms from entering the lungs, but sometimes they are able to enter and pneumonia can develop.

Bacterial pneumonia is the most common cause of pneumonia in adults and often the most serious. Bacterial pneumonia can develop on it's own but there is an increased chance for people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly or very young, to develop pneumonia following the flu or common cold. Viral pneumonia commonly develops in winter months. Many uncommon types of pneumonia have a higher chance of developing in people working in agricultural, industrial or construction industries that are around chemical irritants or animals.

People who are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia include adults over age 65, very young children, those with immune deficiency diseases such as HIV/AIDS or chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, emphysema, or diabetes, people who have had a spleen removed, undergone chemotherapy, used immune-suppressing drugs, smoke, or abuse alcohol. Pneumonia is also commonly acquired by people staying in hospitals for other conditions, particularly patients requiring mechanical ventilation and breathing tubes.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

The symptoms of pneumonia can vary depending on the type of organism causing the infection and a persons overall health. Sometimes the symptoms of pneumonia are severe and develop suddenly with chest pain, fever, chills, cough and shortness of breath. Other times the symptoms are similar to those of the common cold or flu and a person may not realize the condition is more serious.

The main symptoms of pneumonia include cough with greenish or yellow mucus with occasional bloody sputum, fever with shaking chills, sharp or stabbing chest pain made worse with deep breathing or coughing, shortness of breath, and rapid, shallow breathing. Other symptoms of pneumonia include loss of appetite, headache, sweating and clammy skin, extreme fatigue, and confusion in older people.

If any of the following symptoms occur it is important to see a doctor: worsening breathing problems such as shortness of breath, rapid or painful breathing, shaking chills, prolonged fever, chest pain that worsens with breathing or coughing, bloody mucus, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss. It is also important to contact a doctor if you have pneumonia symptoms and have a weak immune system due to factors such as HIV or chemotherapy.

Diagnosis of Pneumonia

If pneumonia is suspected, it is important to see a doctor for a diagnosis. Your doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. If inflammation and infection is suspected in the lungs the doctor will listen for bubbling or cracking sounds (rales) and rumblings (rhonchi) that indicate the presence of thick liquid. Chest X-rays are often used to confirm the diagnosis and determine the extent and location of the infection. If the X-rays do not provide enough information, a CAT (Computed Axial Tomography) scan may be performed, which uses computers to generate a three-dimensional picture of the lungs. Other tests include blood tests to check white blood cell count and to look for the presence of bacteria, viruses, or other organisms and lab tests to check the phlegm or fluid surrounding the lungs for the type of organism causing the infection.

Treatment of Pneumonia

Pneumonia treatment will be determined by the type of pneumonia and the severity of the condition. Bacterial pneumonia is usually treated with antibiotics to cure the infection. Treatment for viral pneumonia is usually limited to rest and plenty of fluids. In most cases it takes longer to recover from viral pneumonia than from bacterial pneumonia. If there is an underlying lung disease, steroid medications may be used to reduce wheezing.

Most people with pneumonia can recover at home, taking any prescribed medications, getting lots of rest, and drinking plenty of fluids to help loosen mucus and bring up phlegm. Over-the-counter medications may also be helpful, such as aspirin or acetaminophen (DO NOT give aspirin to children) to control fever, aches and pains, and soothe coughs. As coughing is helpful to clear the lungs, however, coughs should not be suppressed completely just soothed with the lowest dose possible to allow rest. Most people with treatment improve within two weeks, although fatigue and coughing may last longer.

Hospitalization may be required for the elderly, infants, or others with an underlying chronic disease, severe symptoms, or low oxygen levels. When in the hospital, it may be necessary to remove secretions with respiratory treatments, receive intravenous antibiotics, or be put on oxygen.

Prevention of Pneumonia

Staying healthy is the best way to avoid developing pneumonia. Pneumonia is not usually something you get from someone else, but a disease that develops in people with weakened immune systems often for no known reason.

One step for staying healthy is to keep germs from entering the body. Germs enter the body when you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with your hands, so it is important to wash your hands frequently to keep germs from spreading. If it is not possible to wash your hands, keep alcohol-based hand sanitizers available. It also helps to wear a mask when cleaning dusty or moldy areas or working with toxic chemicals to keep harmful organisms from entering the lungs.

Flu and pneumonia vaccinations are also beneficial for many people. Annual flu vaccines can help prevent pneumonia, since pneumonia is sometimes a complication of the flu. Doctors often recommend vaccines for the elderly, children, and people with diabetes, cancer, asthma, emphysema, HIV, or other chronic conditions.

Other lifestyle choices that help prevent pneumonia include keeping your immune system healthy with diet, regular exercise, proper rest and not smoking (smoking damages the lung's ability to fight off infections).

External Resources

American Lung Association

Mayo Clinic

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