Pneumonia Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

A common condition in the United States, pneumonia can affect anyone, of any age. Each year, over one million people land in the hospital due to pneumonia, which can turn deadly if not treated. Here are some strategies for preventing this unwelcome lung infection.

WHAT IS PNEUMONIA?

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs. The infection may be caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or other germs. An infection in your lung causes the tiny air sacs (‘alveoli’) to become inflamed and fill up with fluid. This fluid occupies space where air should be. That means your lungs can’t function well when you have pneumonia.

Pneumonia can be life-threatening if not treated. Luckily, you can prevent many types of pneumonia so you may never have to deal with this unpleasant illness.

CAUSES 

In adults, bacteria are the primary culprits in causing pneumonia. Many types of bacteria can cause the lungs to become infected. You may develop pneumonia after having a cold or influenza, or it can arise on its own. Bacterial pneumonia often affects only one lung or a part of one lung. This is called ‘lobar pneumonia.’

In children under age five, viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia. In a similar fashion to the common cold, a viral pneumonia may run its course and clear up on its own. Unfortunately, if you or your child develops viral pneumonia, you’re at a higher risk of developing bacterial pneumonia too.

Fungi represent an uncommon cause of lung infections. Adults and children can get fungal pneumonia after exposure to fungus spores in the soil or in contaminated bird droppings. You can survive exposure to these fungi without getting pneumonia. People with a weakened or immature immune system are more likely to develop pneumonia after inhaling these fungi.

Inhaling chemicals or liquids also can cause pneumonia. If you work with industrial chemicals, you should observe safety precautions to avoid inhaling noxious fumes.

RISK FACTORS 

Pneumonia can affect anyone, but certain risk factors may make you more likely to come down with a lung infection:

  • Age. Infants under two years old have immature immune systems, which makes them less able to fight off viruses and bacteria. Similarly, people over age 65 may be more susceptible to pneumonia due to a less robust immune system.
  • A co-existing lung disease. People with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), tuberculosis or asthma are more vulnerable to pneumonia.
  • Weakened immune system due to disease or medications. People with HIV/AIDS or those who take immunosuppressive drugs after an organ transplant have an increased risk of developing pneumonia because their bodies can’t fight off germs well.
  • Mechanical ventilation. If you’re hospitalized on a ventilator, you are considerably more likely to experience an episode of pneumonia.
  • Environmental exposure. As stated above, certain working conditions can increase your exposure to toxic chemicals and gases, which can directly cause pneumonia.
  • Stroke. If you’ve had a stroke that compromised your ability to cough vigorously, you may be less able to move secretions out of your lungs. This can create an ideal breeding ground for the germs that cause pneumonia.
  • Smoking. It damages your lung tissue and is generally bad for you in all respects.

SYMPTOMS

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • A ‘productive’ cough, meaning you are coughing up phlegm or other fluid from your lungs
  • A sensation of having fluid in your lungs
  • Shortness of breath with activity
  • A high fever
  • Chills that cause you to physically shake
  • A lingering cough that doesn’t get better with time, or perhaps even gets worse
  • Feeling worse after having a cold or the flu

If your child under age two exhibits any of the symptoms of pneumonia, you should seek immediate medical attention.

TREATMENT 

If you’re diagnosed with pneumonia, the treatment will vary based on the cause. Viral pneumonia may be treated with antiviral drugs, depending on how severe the case is. Your healthcare provider may opt to take a watchful-waiting approach to viral pneumonia if you’re otherwise healthy. Viral pneumonia generally clears up within three weeks of onset.

Bacterial pneumonia usually is treated with antibiotic medications. People who take antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia generally start feeling better in about three days. Note that antibiotics do not treat viral pneumonia, and you should never self-treat a suspected case of pneumonia with antibiotics.

Fungal pneumonia will be treated with antifungal medications. Other types of pneumonia (such as the kind caused by inhaling toxic fumes) may be treated with short-term oxygen therapy.

 PREVENTION

Your best strategy for dealing with pneumonia is to avoid it. You can reduce your risk of developing pneumonia by implementing these tips.

  • Get the pneumonia vaccination. This immunization lasts about five years. It helps prevent pneumonia and reduces the severity of symptoms if you do get a lung infection. The vaccine is recommended for people over age 65, children under age five, smokers, and those who have a chronic disease, such as COPD or HIV/AIDS.
  • Get a flu shot every year. You reduce your chance of developing a post-flu lung infection if you get immunized against influenza. You need one shot each year.
  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly on a regular basis. Alternatively, use an alcohol-based hand rub to remove germs. Not only will these practices help you avoid getting pneumonia and other illnesses from viruses or bacteria, but you’ll avoid spreading germs, as well.
  • Quit smoking. When you smoke, you burn off tiny hairs in the airways that help your lungs filter the air you breathe in. This leaves you vulnerable to inhaling the bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause pneumonia. Your healthcare provider can help you stop smoking for good.
  • Nurture your immune system. Even if you’re relatively healthy, be sure to eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest. Rest, in particular, allows your immune system time to recharge itself.
  • If a loved one has pneumonia, try to limit your exposure to them, wear medical gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after any contact. You can get pneumonia from your children, so parents take note.

PREVENT, HYDRATE, RECOVER

Especially if you’re in a high-risk group, pneumonia prevention should be your primary strategy for avoiding this serious illness. If you do come down with pneumonia, be sure to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions, take all medications as directed and drink plenty of fluids to thin out your lung secretions to make them easier to cough up. These tips will help you recover from a bout of pneumonia in no time.