According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia affects millions of people every year in the world. It is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Pneumonia is a public health issue not only in developing countries but also in the U.S., where about 1 million people are hospitalized each year with the infection. In many cases, deaths may be prevented with prior vaccination or appropriate treatment.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by different germs, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. It affects people of all ages and can cause a mild to severe illness. In general, your body prevents the germs which cause pneumonia from reaching your lungs. But if your immune system is weak or if your body is not able to prevent the germs from infecting your lungs, you can get pneumonia.
There are different types of pneumonia:
- Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP): The most common type of pneumonia. It occurs in people who are not in the hospital or other healthcare facility.
- Hospital-acquired pneumonia: Type of pneumonia you can develop during or after staying in a hospital.
- Healthcare-acquired pneumonia: Type of pneumonia you can get in nursing homes, outpatient clinics, or centers for dialysis.
- Aspiration pneumonia: You can get this type of pneumonia if you breathe large amounts of liquids, vomit, or food or other objects into your lungs. This can happen when you have a medical condition that affects your ability to swallow (e.g., seizure or stroke).
The severity of pneumonia symptoms might range from being mild to severe, depending on factors such as your age, the type of pneumonia you have, or your overall health. The most common symptoms of pneumonia are:
- High fever.
- Cough (usually significant); sputum (phlegm) may be reddish or yellow-green in color.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
Pneumonia is usually diagnosed by your doctor listening to your lungs for crackling or other abnormal sounds. Your doctor may also order a chest X-ray to see what your lungs and other organs look like.
Who Is at Risk?
Pneumonia can affect all people. However, the following age groups are at higher risk:
- Infants and children younger than 5 years of age.
- People 65 years of age or older.
Other factors that increase your risk of having pneumonia include:
- Respiratory conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
- Chronic conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease).
- Weak immune system (caused by conditions such as HIV/AIDS, organ transplant, chemotherapy for cancer, use of steroids for a long time).
- Being on a ventilator (machine used to help you breathe).
- Having recently had the cold or flu.
Complications of Pneumonia
Treatment for pneumonia depends on the type and severity of pneumonia that you have. In most bacterial cases, pneumonia can be successfully treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can make you very sick and in severe cases lead to tissues in your body (especially in your heart and brain) not receiving the oxygen they need. Pneumonia can worsen any other illnesses or conditions that you might have. It can also lead to fluid around your lungs, or bacteremia (infection in your blood), which can cause infection of the brain or other organs. It may even lead to death.
Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause such complications, especially among the elderly and people belonging to one of the high risk groups listed above. So it is important to get treated as soon as you think you may have pneumonia to avoid serious complications or rapid progression.
Some kinds of pneumonia are preventable diseases. The following are some steps you can take to protect your health:
- Avoid contact with sick people; if you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.
- Wash your hands regularly; wipe down regularly touched surfaces, such as door knobs.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your arm sleeve (instead of your hands).
- Limit exposure to cigarette smoke; stop smoking (if you smoke).
- Keep up with your health visits.
- Get vaccinated with a yearly flu shot and pneumonia vaccination; and get your family vaccinated.
- Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise to keep your immune system strong.
- 1. CDC Pneumonia 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumonia can be prevented – vaccines can help. Reviewed September 17, 2014. Updated November 3, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2014.
- 2. NHLBI Pneumonia 2014. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is pneumonia? Updated March 1, 2011. Accessed November 10, 2014.