What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection causing inflammation of the air sacs in your lungs, which become filled with fluid and make it difficult to breathe.

It most commonly affects the elderly when their immune system is weakened from another condition or infection. 

More than 4 million people develop pneumonia each year, and approximately 50,000 people die annually in the United States.

Flu Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Mononucleosis (Mono) Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

Types of pneumonia

Pneumonia can be classified by the way you acquire the condition.

Hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP)
Hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP) occurs when a person develops the condition in the hospital while hospitalized for another condition. HAP is serious because the patients who develop it are already very sick.

Community-acquired pneumonia
Community-acquired pneumonia develops in the community and is more common than HAP.

Causes of pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused by a viral, bacterial or fungal infection that attacks the lung air sacs.

Viral and bacterial pneumonia is contagious, spreading through airborne contamination. Pneumonia contracted from environmental fungus cannot be spread to others. In rare cases, pneumonia can be caused by aspirating toxic substances or matter into the lungs.

Risk factors for pneumonia

Risk factors for pneumonia include:

  • Age — infants and adults over the age of 65 are most at risk for pneumonia.
  • Hospitalization — if you’re receiving care in a hospital setting, especially on a ventilator, you might be more likely to get pneumonia.
  • Chronic conditions — those who have a chronic condition, such as diabetes or cancer, are more likely to develop pneumonia.

Symptoms of pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia vary depending on how severe your condition is as well as your overall health when the condition is contracted.

Severe symptoms of pneumonia include: 

  • Cough, possibly producing phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Fever
  • Sweats or chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

Diagnosis of pneumonia

Pneumonia diagnosis starts with a physical exam by your primary care doctor, who will discuss your symptoms and listen to your lungs.

In most cases, they will order a chest x-ray, which will confirm if there is inflammation in the lungs.

Additional tests might be needed, including:

  • Blood test — blood is drawn and sent to a laboratory to confirm if you’re fighting an infection, sometimes determining what kind of organism is causing the infection.
  • Sputum test — a sample of fluid taken from your lungs is sent to a laboratory to identify the type of infection.
  • Imaging tests — chest x-rays or Computed Tomography (CT scan) can provide better images to diagnose pneumonia.
  • Pulse oximetry — if you have pneumonia, your oxygen levels could be lower. This test measures the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream.
  • Bronchoscopy — if you have a severe case of pneumonia, a bronchoscopy may be ordered so the doctor can visualize the inside of the airways.

Treatments for pneumonia

If bacterial or fungal pneumonia is diagnosed, antibiotics are the treatment of choice.

Approximately 80% of community-acquired pneumonia cases can be treated at home with antibiotics. Antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu or Relenza, can sometimes help fight the infection if it is viral, but antibiotics won’t be effective in these cases.

Treatments for pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Warm, hydrating fluids
  • Rest — extra sleep helps your immune system fight the infection

Your primary care doctor can diagnose and treat pneumonia but may refer you to pulmonologist, infectious disease specialist or critical care specialist if you have a severe case.

Recovery from pneumonia

Most young, healthy people recover from pneumonia in two to three weeks, but you could notice a lingering cough for a month or longer following the infection. The elderly or those with chronic conditions may suffer from pneumonia for more than eight weeks.

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