Pneumonia is a potentially serious infection of the lungs, usually caused by viruses or bacteria.
As opposed to bronchitis, which is a relatively nonserious infection of the lungs’ airways, pneumonia infects the tissue of the lungs, filling the tiny air sacs with pus and other liquid. This reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the bloodstream.
Germs have the potential of spreading from the infected lung tissue into the rest of the body, causing septic shock and possibly death. Although this is not the common outcome, it still accounts for 60,000 Americans dying of pneumonia every year.
Pneumonia symptoms can vary significantly, depending on underlying health problems and the type of organism causing the infection.
More than half of pneumonias are caused by a variety of viruses. These are usually not serious and often last a relatively short time. Because a person with viral pneumonia tends not to be as sick as someone with bacterial pneumonia, such a person is usually “up and about” and therefore is often referred to as having “walking pneumonia.”
Symptoms of viral pneumonia include cough, fever, muscle pain and fatigue. Signs which often occur with bacterial pneumonia include shaking chills, high fever, chest pain and cough. Mucus may be present with either type of pneumonia but is more likely with the bacterial variety.
Pneumonia is not usually contagious.
One of the most common symptoms I see in patients with any form of pneumonia is the extreme fatigue, which can last many weeks after all other symptoms have cleared.
Risk factors for pneumonia are as follows:
- Age — Adults 65 and older and very young children
- Chronic disease, such as emphysema, diabetes and heart disease
- Recent hospitalization, surgery or traumatic injury
Pneumonia treatments vary on the type and severity of the illness. Bacterial pneumonia will be treated with antibiotics. The entire course of antibiotics must be taken to prevent relapse and to prevent resistant strains of bacteria from forming. Viral pneumonia technically doesn’t need antibiotics, but because of the difficulty of distinguishing between the two, a health care provider will usually choose to err on the side of treatment, especially because viral pneumonia can sometimes turn into a bacterial infection.
In all cases of pneumonia, one also needs to control fever, drink lots of liquids and get plenty of rest.
Prevention of pneumonia is possible. Because pneumonia is a common complication of influenza, getting a flu shot every year is a good idea.
There is a false assumption held by many that getting a pneumonia shot will prevent one from getting any type of pneumonia. Not so. A pneumonia vaccine is available, but it is only effective for the pneumococcal pneumonia germ. It might not prevent one from getting this form of pneumonia, but having the vaccine can decrease the infection’s potentially fatal side effects. The vaccine is usually recommended for those who fall into the previously mentioned “risk factor” categories and can be administered any time after 2 years of age or at least once to anyone after age 65.
It’s a good idea to seek medical care if a person has a cough with shortness of breath, chest pain, chills and fever or feels much worse after a bout of cold or flu. Pneumonia is a serious infection, but for the average person, if it’s caught in time and treated properly, it should cause no lasting harm.