Pneumonia Knowledge to Keep You Healthy

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Is pneumonia a bacterial or viral infection? Can a bad case of pneumonia turn fatal? You’ve likely asked or pondered these questions and perhaps haven’t been quite sure of the answers. It’s time to layer on the knowledge as you nestle into winter and cold and flu season. 

Pneumonia is a common lung infection occurring in one or both lungs. It’s caused by more than 30 bacteria, viruses and fungi. Most healthy people recover from pneumonia in one to three weeks. However, pneumonia can be life-threatening for some at-risk groups.

Pneumonia tends to be more serious in children under the age of 5, adults 65 years or older, people with other chronic health problems (such as COPD, heart disease, diabetes and asthma) and in people who have weakened immune systems from disease, chemotherapy treatment or other factors.

You many have heard terms such as community-acquired pneumonia and health care associated pneumonia. These terms simply describe the environment where pneumonia is contracted. Health care associated pneumonia can be very serious if a patient is being treated for another serious medical condition.

The flu virus is a common cause of viral pneumonia in adults. Having the flu also can make you more susceptible to bacterial pneumonia. Other viruses can also cause pneumonia, such as respiratory viruses, rhinovirus and herpes simplex virus.

Walking pneumonia is another familiar term and refers to a milder bacterial pneumonia whose most common symptom is a dry, hacking cough, along with fatigue.

How to Know if You Have Pneumonia

Pneumonia and its symptoms can vary from mild to severe, depending on the type of pneumonia you have, your age and your general health. Pneumonia symptoms may include:

  • Cough often accompanied by mucus
  • Fever and chills (higher fevers typically with bacterial pneumonia)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with exertion
  • Chest pain with deep breaths or heavy coughing
  • Loss of appetite, low energy and fatigue
  • Excessive sweating and clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Confusion, especially in older people
  • Blueness of the lips due to decreased oxygen in the blood

Your doctor will diagnose pneumonia through medical history, physical exam and chest X-ray in most cases. Other tests to determine the type of pneumonia may include:

  • Blood tests to check for infection and oxygen levels in your blood
  • Blood and mucus culture tests to help determine germ type (bacterial, fungal or viral)
  • Tests of your sputum (mucus coughed up from your respiratory tract) to see if a germ is present there
Most healthy people recover from pneumonia in one to three weeks. However, pneumonia can be life-threatening for some at-risk groups.

How is Pneumonia Treated?

Treating pneumonia early is key, especially in at-risk groups, to reduce complications such as advanced infection, respiratory failure and organ failure.

Treatment varies, depending on the cause (bacterial, viral or fungal) of your pneumonia, how severe your symptoms are, and your age and overall health. Antibiotics may be prescribed for pneumonia caused by bacteria. 

Antiviral medicine may be prescribed for pneumonia caused by a virus, such as a flu virus. Antibiotics do not work against viruses

Most people can be treated at home by following these steps:

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  • Drink plenty of fluids to help loosen secretions.
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep. Have someone else do household chores.
  • Do not take cough medicines without first talking to your doctor. If your cough is preventing you from getting rest, talk to your doctor.
  • Control your fever with aspirin, ibuprofen (or naproxen), or acetaminophen. Do not give aspirin to children.
  • Take any medication as prescribed. Finish all medication as instructed even if you feel better.
  • Use a cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom. Be sure to clean the humidifier daily.

Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

Pneumonia is often spread through coughing, sneezing and even breathing, so a little prevention goes a long way. Try these tips to help keep you healthy all winter long.

  • Get a flu vaccination every year. 
  • Get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia if recommended by your health care provider.
  • Talk to your child’s pediatrician about other vaccinations that reduce pneumonia risk.
  • Wash your hands frequently (20 to 30 seconds) and clean in between fingers, around your nails and the backs of your hands.
  • Dry your hands on a separate towel or use paper towels.
  • Avoid people with flu or cold symptoms.
  • Keep alcohol-based hand cleaners nearby.
  • Wipe off surfaces, including phones, remote controls and doorknobs with antibacterial or disinfectant products.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Be aware of your general health and don’t let symptoms linger unchecked.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
  • Sleep at least eight hours a night.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

For more information about diagnosing and treating pneumonia, talk with your health care provider.