Imagine having a cough. Now imagine sharp pains in your chest every time you breathe in, feeling short of breath, feverish and being enormously tired. This is what having pneumonia can feel like. Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that causes fluid to build up and makes it difficult to breathe. While several germs cause pneumonia, like coronavirus and influenza, one of the most common is pneumococcal pneumonia. Young children, older adults and people with some chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at higher risk. The good news is, there are things you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. Read below to learn more about the symptoms, causes, who are more vulnerable and what you can do to reduce the spread.
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.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Pneumonia?
Symptoms can range from 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.
In older people, fever and cough aren’t always present. In fact, confusion can be one of the common warning signs. You can learn more about pneumonia in the elderly here.
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.
In severe cases, you might need to go to the hospital.
How is Pneumonia Diagnosed?
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
- A blood test to check for signs of infection
- Sputum test to check what germ is present
What can Cause Pneumonia?
There are several germs that can cause pneumonia. They include:
- Bacteria – examples are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae
- Viruses – examples are influenza (commonly known as the flu), coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus
- Fungi – examples are Aspergillus and Cryptococcus. These are less common, affecting people with a fragile immune system.
Many cases of community-acquired pneumonia are due to Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as “pneumococcal pneumonia”.
Is Pneumonia Contagious?
In the community, these germs are often spread by touching contaminated objects, sharing eating or drinking utensils and through breathing infected respiratory droplets in the air from someone coughing or sneezing.
Staying home when sick, hand hygiene, avoiding touching your face, and coughing or sneezing into your elbow are just some things that can help to reduce the spread.
Who is at Higher Risk of Developing Pneumonia?
Pneumonia can affect anyone. However, the following age groups are at higher risk because of their weaker immune systems:
- Infants and children younger than 2 years of age.
- People 70 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 medical 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, having no spleen, 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
- Māori and Pacific Islander people
How Long Does It Take To Get Better?
While many people’s symptoms can improve in days from starting treatment, it could take weeks or months for a full recovery. People might continue to have a cough and experience fatigue for weeks or months. It is vital to listen to your body and get lots of rest.
It can take weeks or months for you to feel yourself again.
Sometimes pneumonia can lead to severe 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 essential to see your doctor as soon as you think you, or your loved one, may have pneumonia.
Some 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 frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue or 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
It is vital to do everything you can to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.
If you think that you or your loved ones are at increased risk for pneumonia, talk to your doctor or nurse about prevention options, including vaccination
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