What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a sudden infection and inflammation of the lungs and bronchial tubes that impairs the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It is usually a bacterial infection (pneumococci, haemophilus, streptococci or staphylococci) but at times may be caused by a virus. It can affect people of both genders and all ages, though the severity is worse in young children and older adults. Mild cases can be treated at home.
Pneumonia is the leading cause of death from infectious disease. For young children—below the age of 5—and elderly people—older than age 60—pneumonia can become severe enough to be hospitalized. It can also become severe for people in the other age groups if they are already suffering from other illnesses, like COPD, lung cancer, or AIDS, and/or are smokers.
What are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
The symptoms of viral pneumonia come on more slowly and are not as severe. The common symptoms of bacterial pneumonia include:
- high fever (over 103° F) and chills
- cough with sputum that may be green or contain blood or bloody streaks
- rapid breathing
- shortness of breath
- chest pain that is worse when you breathe in
- abdominal pain
- feeling tired
- loss of appetite and weight loss
You may not have all of these symptoms. Some people may not have a fever, while others may have a cough without mucus. For elderly people, pneumonia can affect the thought process and lead to confusion or delirium. Pneumonia can get worse for someone already suffering from some other lung disease such as COPD, bronchiectasis or cystic fibrosis.
How do I Keep From Getting Pneumonia
Those who are at high risk—have a greater chance of getting pneumonia—are people in the following groups:
- newborns, infants, children under 5 or adults over age 60
- those who recently had the flu or upper respiratory tract infection
- people with a chronic illness such as COPD, diabetes or cancer (particularly lung cancer), or are unhealthy for any reason
- those with a weakened immune system or are malnourished
- people who have recently had thoracic or abdominal surgery, or have been in the hospital for any reason
You can reduce your chances of getting pneumonia by:
- Staying away from people who have pneumonia; pneumonia spreads very easily from infected people.
- Having healthy habits like eating a balanced diet, regular exercise, proper rest, covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and washing your hands often, especially before eating or preparing food, visiting someone in the hospital, or being out in public.
- Getting an annual flu shot to prevent influenza, which might end up as pneumonia. For people over age 60, get the pneumococcal vaccine (shot).
- Stop smoking. Tobacco weakens the lungs so they cannot fight infections.
You should talk your doctor about more preventive measures if you are health issues like diabetes, cancer, or AIDS.
How do You Get Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is caused by germs like bacteria or virus, which maybe present in your nose, sinuses, or mouth, or germs might enter directly from the air when you breathe. These germs spread to the lungs and can cause the infection. You can also get germs from someone who is already infected with pneumonia.
For those who are already suffering from a cold or the flu, the lungs and immune system have become weakened and get infected easily. Patients with chronic illnesses like asthma, cancer, diabetes or heart diseases, bacterial pneumonia can infect more easily. It’s also worth mentioning that pneumonia is one of the most common post-operative complications.
Symptoms of Pneumonia
When your body starts fighting the infection, your lungs become inflamed and the air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs fill with mucus. The thick mucus makes it harder for you to breathe.
Most of the signs and symptoms result from the mucus in your lungs.
• bloody, dark yellow or rusty-colored mucus
• breathing fast
• chest pain when you breathe or cough
• feeling tired and weak
• fever and chills
• rattling sounds in your lungs
• shortness of breath
• the skin on your lips or nails look blue (from lack of oxygen)
Diagnosis of Pneumonia
You doctor will take a history of your symptoms and order a blood test, chest x-ray and sputum test. These test can find what type pneumonia you have and what medicines will be effective in treatment.
Bacterial pneumonia it is treated with a broad spectrum antibiotic, rest and fluids to keep the mucus thin and easy to cough up. Generally, the antibiotics will make you feel better within two or three days. However, if you do not feel better or your feel worse within three days, call your doctor. You may also be prescribed medicine for your cough, to relieve chest pain or reduce a fever.
You may feel very tired because your body is using its energy to heal. Also, you’re not getting as much air into your body as your normally would because of the mucous in your lungs and air sacs. It is important to get plenty of rest and let you body use its energy to heal.
It is very important to complete the entire prescribed course of antibiotics and not stop even though your symptoms have improved and you’re feeling better. Not completing the entire prescription can lead to recurrence which is much more serious that the initial pneumonia. Antibiotics used to treat pneumonia are very strong and may have side effects:
• upset stomach
• sore mouth or tongue
• pain, itching and burning when you pee
• vaginal yeast infection
Let your doctor know if you have these side effects, he may change your antibiotic or have to prescribe medicine for the side effects.
Coughing helps your lungs get rid of the mucus and keeps it from spreading in your lungs. Your doctor may prescribe an expectorant loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough up. Cough into tissues. The mucus you cough up is filled with bacteria so put used tissues in a plastic bag and then throw the bag away. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling contaminated tissues to prevent spreading to other members of your family.
Pain and Fever Control Medicine
Controlling the pain in your chest will make it easier for you to breathe and get more oxygen into your lungs. You can also breath deeper and cough more to get the mucus out.
Get plenty of rest so your body can use its energy to heal and prevent relapse. You may tire easily because your body isn’t getting as much oxygen and it’s also fighting an infection. Alternate activity with rest to save your energy. Your doctor will tell you when you can resume normal activity, it may take up to 6 weeks.
Eat extra calories during the day. If your throat is sore, warm foods or drinks may feel better. Eat 6 or more small meals and not 3 large ones. Drink eight 8 oz glasses of liquids each day. The extra liquids will help keep the mucus thin and fluid for easier removal and help keep your fever down. Avoid drinks with caffeine as they can dehydrate you.
If you smoke—STOP! Smoking harms and irritates your lungs causing more mucus. If you need help quitting ask your doctor to refer you to a stop-smoking program or help you with quitting.
Treating Pneumonia in the Hospital
Some people have to be treated in the hospital. Whether you need hospital treatment depends on:
• how bad your lungs are infected
• whether you have other health conditions like COPD, heart, or kidney disease
• if you have someone who can care for you at home
• how old you are
• if you need IV antibiotics
Speeding Up Your Recovery
Although pneumonia can be cured giving the treatments enough time to work, you can do the following to help speed up your recovery:
- Call your doctor as soon as you start having symptoms of pneumonia. The sooner treatment begins, the faster you’ll recover.
- If symptoms are getting worse, you have other health issues, or your immune system is weak, you might have to go to the hospital for around the clock monitoring and treatment with fluids, oxygen, breathing support and IV medication.
- Your body needs energy (calories) to heal, so increase your daily calories and increase your fluids. Also, you can save energy by getting plenty of rest.
- Quit smoking. This will definitely help your lungs to respond better to the medications and thereby hasten the healing process.
- Call or see your doctor to get treatment for symptoms like a cough, which can keep you from resting.
If you are otherwise healthy—normal lungs and adequate immune system—pneumonia is usually curable in a 1 to 2 weeks with treatment. It may take longer to cure in young children, the elderly or people who have other health conditions.
When to Call Your Doctor
You should call your doctor if you or any member of your family has symptoms of pneumonia. You should also call if you have any of the following symptoms while you are getting treatment for pneumonia:
- your fever, pain or shortness of breath gets worse
- you have dark or bluish fingernails, toenails or skin
- you see blood in the sputum you’re coughing up
- you begin having nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
Once you have pneumonia you are more likely to get it again. Also, other infections or irritations in your lungs can increase your chance of getting pneumonia. Here are things you can do to stay healthy and lower your chances of getting an infection that could lead to pneumonia:
• Talk to your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine. It is recommended once after age 65, for people with chronic illnesses like diabetes or lung disease, and for people with weak immune systems.
• Get a flu shot every year
• Don’t go around people who you know are sick
• Don’t let yourself get too tired or run down
• Drink plenty of fluids and fruits to stay hydrated
• If it’s cold outside, cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to warm the air you breathe
• Wash your hands often, especially after being in public, using proper hand washing techniques