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Pneumonia: What You Should Know

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the deadly potential of pneumonia, with virus-related infections wreaking havoc on the lungs of some patients. But even without COVID-19 in the picture, watching a loved one deal with coughing, wheezing and labored breathing can be a frightening experience. The worrying symptoms can linger even after treatment is complete. 

In 2018, 1.5 million people in the United States were diagnosed with pneumonia and more than 40,000 people died from it. While pneumonia can be serious, it is also preventable in many cases. Understanding the symptoms to watch for, and when to seek treatment, may help you halt pneumonia before it gets serious. 

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a lung infection that enflames the air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs. They fill with fluid, making it harder to breathe and to get oxygen into the bloodstream. There are two types of pneumonia, which is caused by bacteria, viruses and fungi: 

  • Infectious pneumonia is the more common form of the infection and is spread through sneezing, coughing or simply breathing. It also occurs as a complication of other illnesses, including the flu and COVID-19. 
  • Non-infectious pneumonia is generally caused by environmental factors. For example, people with weakened immune systems can get fungal pneumonia through contact with soil.  

Symptoms and Severity 

Severity and duration of pneumonia symptoms vary from person to person and the type of organism causing the infection. Episodes can range in seriousness from mild discomfort to life threatening. Typical symptoms include

  • Coughing up green, yellow or bloody mucus 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Shallow breathing 
  • Sharp, stabbing chest pain 
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Nausea/vomiting (especially in children) 
  • Confusion (especially in older people) 
  • Fever with sweating and/or shaking chills. 

Age is the biggest risk factor for pneumonia. It is most dangerous for adults over 65 and infants. Other risk factors include: 

  • Chronic lung disease or other illness 
  • Asthma 
  • Recent flu, cold or other respiratory infection 
  • Weakened immune system 
  • Hospitalization 
  • Smoking 
  • Recreational drug use 
  • Environmental exposure to toxins and chemicals 

Varied Course of Treatment

There is no single test to diagnose pneumonia, so doctors use multiple tools, including medical history and physical exam as well as chest X-rays, blood tests, CT scans and sputum tests that analyze fluid from the lungs. 

Once diagnosed, it is treated by targeting the underlying infection while preventing further complications. While a doctor may prescribe antibiotics for viral pneumonia, many cases can be managed at home with over-the-counter medications (cough syrup, aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen) along with plenty of fluids and rest. 

If you think you or your child might have pneumonia, don’t wait to see a doctor, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Seek medical care immediately if you or your child have: 

  • Difficulty breathing 
  • A bluish tint to lips and/or fingertips 
  • Chest pain 
  • A severe or worsening cough with mucus 

The Good News? It’s Preventable

There are steps you can take to minimize your risk of infection. Because pneumonia often develops as a complication of the flu, getting a flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine are excellent ways to protect yourself. 

Those at high risk may also want to consider an additional pneumococcal vaccine that can help prevent some types of pneumonia. 

Other prevention tips: 

  • Wash your hands frequently. 
  • Quit smoking. 
  • Wear a mask when in crowds or exposed to environmental toxins (smoke and chemicals, for example.) 
  • Exercise regularly. 
  • Eat nutritious food and maintain a healthy weight. 

If you have a compromised immune system or other underlying health conditions that may put you at increased risk, ask your healthcare provider about additional precautions. 

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