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Pneumonia 101: What You Need to Know

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Facts You Need to Know About Pneumonia

Think pneumonia isn’t serious? Think again. In 2013 more than 53,000 Americans died from the infection in the United States and more than one million children younger than five die from it each year, worldwide. An average of one million people seek treatment in hospitals in the United States because of pneumonia, and the majority are adults. Many of these hospitalizations and deaths could be prevented with appropriate prevention measures and treatment.

The numbers might seem scary, but many pneumonia cases are preventable. We have broken down what you need to know about pneumonia and the steps you can take to protect yourself from this illness.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi and is relatively common. This infection causes the airs sacs in one or both of the lungs to become inflamed. The air sacs could fill with fluids or pus, causing a person to cough with phlegm or pus and have difficulty breathing.

The severity of pneumonia can range from mild to life-threatening. If someone is diagnosed with pneumonia but is healthy, he or she will likely recover within one to three weeks. Pneumonia is most dangerous in infants, individuals older than age 65 and people with weakened immune systems or other health issues.

What Causes Pneumonia?

There are a variety of ways that pneumonia can be caused, based on the types of germs and how the infection was acquired. The most common form is community-acquired pneumonia, caused by bacteria, bacteria-like organisms, fungi and viruses. Other types can occur through bacterial infection when a person is recovering from a different illness, which can become more severe because of bacteria’s potential resistance to antibiotics. Patients using breathing machines and ventilators are at an increased risk of this type of pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is another form that occurs when a person inhales food, drink, saliva or vomit into their lungs. Typically, this happens when the gag reflex is upset, and not functioning properly, which can lead to swallowing issues. Brain injury and substance abuse can be factors that cause this.

According to the American Lung Association, close to one-third of pneumonia cases in the United States are caused by viruses. Most often, pneumonia is a complication of the flu. The flu virus is the main culprit of viral pneumonia in adults. Other viruses that can cause pneumonia are:

  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • herpes simplex virus
  • rhinovirus
  • severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS)

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms can range between mild and severe depending on the type of pneumonia you have developed. Typical symptoms are a cough, fever, chills and shortness of breath. Other symptoms a person may experience could be sharp chest pain when coughing, headache, excessive sweating, loss of appetite and confusion.

The type of symptoms you may experience can vary depending on whether it is viral or bacterial pneumonia. In cases of bacterial pneumonia, a person’s fever could reach up to 105 degrees F, often with profuse sweating and rapid breathing. The initial symptoms of viral pneumonia are almost identical to influenza symptoms, with fever, cough, headache and muscle pain.

Risk Factors

Like any other illness or condition, there are risk factors that can increase an individual’s chance of developing pneumonia. Those factors can include any of the following:

  • Chronic lung diseases
  • Smoking
  • Brain injuries 
  • Recent surgeries
  • Weakened or compromised immune system
  • Chronic health conditions

Pneumonia Treatment

Treatment for pneumonia will depend on what form of pneumonia a person has and its severity. Many people are able to be treated at home. A provider will prescribe antibiotics to individuals with bacterial pneumonia, but antibiotics will not work for someone with viral pneumonia. A doctor would prescribe antiviral medications to treat it. It’s important to not miss any doses of medication and to take the medicine until it is gone, even if you begin to feel better.

Severe pneumonia symptoms can lead to a hospital stay for more intensive care and observation. Treatment in the hospital will help those who are also at risk because of other health conditions they may have. Because pneumonia can affect the level of oxygen in the bloodstream, oxygen therapy may be needed to help the pneumonia patient. The patient may also receive fluids and antibiotics intravenously and breathing treatments.

Pneumonia Prevention

There are many steps a person can take in order to prevent pneumonia. Washing your hands often, especially before preparing food, after blowing your nose, after going to the bathroom and after being in contact with someone who is sick. Overall, practicing good hygiene will help protect you and others around from infections that can lead to pneumonia.

If you smoke, you have a higher chance of infection. Smoking can damage your lung’s defense against any respiratory infections. Quitting smoking can help keep your immune system strong, as well as a healthy diet. Regular exercise and getting enough sleep can build up your immune system.

The flu virus can cause pneumonia, making it very important to get the flu vaccine. The vaccine can help prevent pneumonia caused by the flu. Vaccination is important for people with chronic conditions and diseases, as well as the elderly.

A pneumonia vaccine is available for the two age groups who are most susceptible to the illness, the very young and the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend as part of the standard immunization schedule that infants without medical conditions receive the pneumococcal conjugate vaccination (PCV13), which is given in a series of four doses at two months, four months, six months and 12-15 months. Additionally, it is recommended that adults 65 and older receive the pneumonia vaccine. Typically, the effectiveness of the vaccine is 5-10 years. Some adults and children with certain medical conditions may also need to get the vaccination. Check with your primary care provider to see if you are in a high-risk group for pneumonia.

UnityPoint at Home Is There For You

If you have undergone a recent hospital stay and it’s time for you to come home but you need continued care, don’t be afraid. UnityPoint at Home provides Nursing Care to help make sure those managing chronic conditions, transitioning home from the hospital or undergoing rehabilitation continue to receive the care they need. Our team of skilled professionals work closely with your providers to create a customized care plan that will meet and exceed your healthcare goals.