Pneumonia can affect anyone. Young children, older adults and people with some chronic health conditions are at greater risk. It can be very serious and can lead to hospitalisation and sometimes death. The good news is that some types of pneumonia may be prevented by vaccination and treatment options are usually available.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a lung infection 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 these germs from reaching the air sacs in your lungs. But if your immune system is overwhelmed or if your body is not able to fight off the germs, you can get pneumonia. The air sacs in your lungs can fill up with fluid and make it harder to breathe.
There are a number of germs that can cause pneumonia. The most common are:
- Bacteria – examples are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae.
- Viruses – examples are influenza (commonly known as the flu) and respiratory syncytial virus.
- Fungi – examples are Aspergillus and Cryptococcus. This happens usually in people with an extremely weak immune system.
The severity of 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 are:
- High fever.
- Cough sometimes with phlegm.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
Pneumonia can also follow a bout of a cold or the flu.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor right away if you:
- have a cold that doesn’t get better with rest and treatment, or, if the symptoms get worse.
- have severe symptoms such as chest pain, confusion or rapid breathing.
Your doctor will listen to the lungs for crackling or other abnormal sounds. If these are present, they may request a few other tests to confirm their diagnosis. These include:
- Chest X-ray to see what your lungs look like
- Blood test to check for signs of infection
- Sputum test to check what germ is present
Who Is at Risk?
Pneumonia can affect anyone. However, the following age groups are at higher risk:
- Infants and children younger than 2 years of age.
- People 65 years of age or older.
Other factors that can increase your risk of having pneumonia regardless of how old you are include:
- Smoking or being exposed to tobacco smoke.
- 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, receiving chemotherapy for cancer, use of steroids for a long time or organ transplants).
- Being on a ventilator (machine used to help you breathe).
- Having recently had the cold or flu.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Treatment depends on the type and severity of pneumonia that you have. In most bacterial cases, pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. Some people might need to go to hospital. If you have viral pneumonia, antibiotics will not help. You may also receive medicines to reduce the symptoms, and be asked to get plenty of rest and drink more fluids.
Sometimes pneumonia can lead to serious complications. Tissues in your body (especially in your heart and brain) might not receive the oxygen they need. Pneumonia can also worsen any other illnesses or conditions that you might have. It can also lead to fluid buildup around your lungs, or bacteraemia (infection in your blood), which can spread to other organs. It may even lead to death.
Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause such complications, especially among older people and those belonging to one of the risk groups listed above. So, it is important to see your doctor as soon as you think you, or your loved one, may have pneumonia.
Some types of pneumonia may be preventable through vaccination.
Make sure infants and children are up-to-date with their routine vaccinations.
For older adults and people with risk factors, ask your doctor if you should receive vaccines that help prevent against pneumonia.
Some other helpful 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 enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise to keep your immune system strong.
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