CONDITIONS

Pneumonia

What Is Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a term used to describe infections of the lungs that can be caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. There are over 30 potential causes of pneumonia, though 30% of all cases are caused by respiratory viruses. In children and young adults, respiratory viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia. In adults, pneumonia is more commonly caused by the flu virus. Pneumonia causes the inflammation of the alveoli, the air sacs in your lungs. When the alveoli become inflamed, breathing becomes difficult and less oxygen is delivered to the body.

Pneumonia can be classified by the location of the infection:

  • Lobar pneumonia only affects an isolated area of the lungs.
  • Bronchial pneumonia is widespread throughout both lungs.

Pneumonia can also be classified by the environment in which it was contracted:

  • Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) is contracted outside of a hospital through exposure to a virus or bacteria.
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia is contracted during a hospital stay. Cases of hospital-acquired pneumonia can be especially serious given the weakened immune systems of hospital patients and the high populations of bacteria and other infectious materials in hospitals.
  • Nursing-home acquired pneumonia is contracted in a nursing home or hospice care facility. Pneumonia is a fairly common infectious disease in nursing homes, prompting many nursing homes to do regular screenings for the disease.
  • Ventilator-associated pneumonia is contracted during the use of a ventilator.

With proper treatment, most cases of pneumonia clear up relatively quickly, lasting only about 2 weeks. For elderly patients, young children, and those with a compromised immune system, the risk of complication or death from the disease is higher. Risks of pneumonia are also much higher for individuals in hospitals and nursing home facilities.

What Causes Pneumonia

Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms and irritants. When the lungs become infected, the alveoli, or air sacs, become inflamed and breathing and oxygen delivery may become difficult.

Most cases of pneumonia are either bacterial or viral:

  • Bacterial Pneumonia is most commonly caused by Spretococcus pneumonia (pneumonococcus), though rarer cases can be caused by:
  • Legionella pneumophila
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia
  • Chlamydophila pneumonia
  • Viral pneumonia can be caused by respiratory viruses (most common in children) or advanced influenza virus infections. Cases of pneumonia caused by the influenza virus can be especially serious and possibly fatal.

Pneumonia can also be caused by:

  • Mycoplasms, small microorganisms that are classified as neither bacteria nor viruses.
  • Tuberculosis
  • Fungi

Risk Factors For Pneumonia

There are several factors that can influence your risk of contracting pneumonia. These include:

  • Age. Two age groups are at a distinctly higher risk of developing pneumonia due to weakened or developing immune systems. These are:
    • Infants and children younger than two years of age.
    • Adults ages 65 and over.
  • Smoking. Smoking both damages the tissues of the lungs and weakens the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to a pneumonia infection.
  • Certain chronic diseases such as:
    • Cystic fibrosis
    • Asthma
    • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
    • Bronchiectasis
    • Diabetes
    • Heart failure
    • Sickle cell anemia
    • Individuals in hospitals and nursing homes are more likely to contract pneumonia than those who are not.
  • Weakened immune system. Those with weakened immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients, are less equipped to fight of pneumatic infection. Certain types of pneumonia are often the first noticeable symptoms for HIV patients.

Diagnosing Pneumonia

A pneumonia diagnosis will most likely involve a combination of the following tests:

  • Physical exam, paying special attention to signs of wheezing or liquid/mucus in the lungs.
  • Chest x-ray to asses lung congestion
  • Blood test, to check for high white blood cell counts or low oxygen levels that may be sign of infection.
  • CT (computerized tomography) Scan, which uses computerized imaging technology to produce images of the lungs.
  • Bronchoscopy, in which the doctor can see into the lungs. This test is used most often in advanced cases of pneumonia that are not responding to first line treatments.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia vary from case to case and may at first appear to be influenza symptoms. These may include following:

  • Cough, dry or with mucus
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

Prognosis

The prognosis for pneumonia varies based on the patient and the infection type. Patients who are otherwise healthy before contracting pneumonia are likely to recover within 1-2 weeks if proper treatment is received. For elderly patients, infants, young children, and those with a compromised immune system, the risks of complication and death are much higher. An increasing number of antibiotic-resistant strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria are also increasing the risks of treatment complications. The best way to ensure a prompt recovery from pneumonia is early detection of symptoms and prompt treatment.

Living With Pneumonia

Taking the right steps towards recovery are important in regaining your health. The following tips can help you to a faster recovery from pneumonia:

  • Take all medications as prescribed by your doctor. Continue to take prescribed medications even if you are no longer experiencing symptoms. Stopping a dosage early may allow the infection to grow back stronger.
  • Drink water. Staying hydrated is essential to helping your body recover.
  • Get plenty of sleep and rest. It will take time to recover. Rushing back into a busy schedule before you are fully ready can slow the healing process or bring back the infection.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of getting pneumonia and can significantly slow recovery. For quitting resources, visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-NO-BUTTS.
  • Ease back into your routine. If you are having trouble breathing, monitor your exercise and activity level. Overexertion can cause serious health complications.

Screening

Pneumonia is not typically screened for in the general public because its disruptive symptoms are usually promptly recognized and diagnosed when they arise. Hospitals and nursing homes may choose to screen their patients for pneumonia due to the increased risk of contracting the disease in large healthcare environments. Screening may include monitoring lung function and body temperature.

Prevention

Pneumonia is not an entirely preventable disease, though there are things that you can do to lower your risk of contracting the disease. These include:

  • Get a flu shot. Getting a yearly flu vaccination can help prevent against influenza infection, one of the main precursors of pneumonia for adults. Visit your doctor or your local health clinic for more information on the flu shot.
  • Get the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination. This vaccine is against one of the main causes of bacterial pneumonia, and is recommended for children ages five and under and adults at high risk of contracting this type of pneumonia.
  • Monitor your health. Visit your doctor if any cough or cold/flu symptoms to not go away or worsen.
  • Drink plenty of water and keep to a regular sleep schedule. This will help your body strengthen its immune system and its ability to fight off infection.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially in the winter when cold and flu viruses are more easily spread. Be wary of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer overuse as they can contribute to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking raises your risk of contracting pneumonia and the risk of complications once you have the disease.

Common Treatment

The treatment of pneumonia depends largely on the patient and the type of the infection.

Mild cases of pneumonia can most often be treated at home under the direction of a primary care physician. At home treatment methods may include the following:

  • Antibiotics are most often used to treat cases of bacterial pneumonia.
  • Antiviral medications are used to treat cases of viral pneumonia.
  • Antifungal medications are used to treat cases of fungal pneumonia.
  • Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin can be used to control fevers and relieve pain. Consult your doctor before taking any of these medications, especially if you are on other medications.
  • Respiratory support is often necessary for patients who experience difficulty breathing. Nebulizers and inhalers can help deliver oxygen to patients whose lungs cannot do it on their own.

More advanced cases of pneumonia, or cases of pneumonia in high risk patients, may require hospitalization. In-hospital treatments may include all of the above treatments as well as IV-delivered fluids and medication, and continuous oxygen delivery from a mask or tube.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

The following alternative treatments may help in the treatment and prevention of pneumonia:

  • Zinc. Zinc supplement have been shown to boost the immune system to help fight against infection. Zinc can be taken in supplement form or found naturally in seafood, red meat, spinach, pumpkin and squash seeds, and nuts.
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is also known to have immune-boosting compounds. Vitamin C is a common ingredient in most multivitamins and can be found in pure supplement form or naturally in foods such as citrus fruits and bell peppers.
  • Vitamin A. Vitamin A has been shown to protect against lung disease and lung-related complications, including pneumonia.
  • Cayenne Pepper. Cayenne has been shown to have antimicrobial properties and may be helpful in fighting off infection.
  • Probiotics can help support the population of healthy bacteria in the body, increasing its capacity to fight off bacterial and other types of infection.
  • Herbal medicines. A variety of herbs have been shown to boost the immune system and help fight against infection, including Echinacea, Goldenseal, and Barberry root bark.
  • Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that has been shown to improve pneumonia symptoms as well as increase overall well-being.
  • Homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy is a specific form of medicine that works by introducing diluted concentrations of a substance to target a specific symptom with the aim of stimulating the body to fight off the infection on its own.

Consult your doctor about any alternative or complementary treatments you may wish to try, especially herbal remedies, as they can interact with medications. If symptoms do not improve or worsen, contact your doctor immediately.

Care Guide

The following tips can help make the treatment and recovery process more comfortable:

  • Take all medications as prescribed by your doctor. Continue to take prescribed medications even if you are no longer experiencing symptoms. Stopping a dosage early may allow the infection to grow back stronger.
  • Drink tea or warm water. Drinking something warm may help loosen chest congestion and discomfort. However, stay away from caffeinated teas. Caffeine is a natural diuretic and increases the risk of dehydration.
  • Drink water. Staying hydrated is essential to helping along your recovery.
  • Stay entertained. Boredom due to bed rest can make it tempting to rush back into your routine too quickly. Line up a selection of good books or movies to help keep yourself entertained without overexerting yourself.
  • Get plenty of sleep and rest. It will take time to recover. Rushing back into a busy schedule before you are fully ready can slow the healing process or bring back the infection.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of getting pneumonia and can significantly slow recovery. For quitting resources, visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-NO-BUTTS.
  • Ease back into your routine. Don’t feel guilty about taking it easy. If you are having trouble breathing, monitor your exercise and activity level. Overexertion can cause serious health complications.

When To Contact A Doctor

If you experience any of the following, contact your doctor immediately:

  • Cough producing bloody sputum
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Such difficulty breathing that you feel you may not be able to continue to breathe
  • Chest pain
  • A high fever (103-105º or more, for most)
  • Severe shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Cough producing green or yellow sputum that lasts more than 3 days
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent cough (longer than 4 weeks)

Questions For Your Doctor

Primary care physicians are normally the first doctors to diagnose and treat pneumonia. If symptoms worsen after treatment from your primary care physician, seek care at an emergency facility.

 

Questions For A Doctor

You may want to ask your doctor the following questions:

  • What type of pneumonia do I have?
  • How much do I need to limit my activity?
  • Should I be monitoring myself for any specific symptoms?
  • How long will treatment take?
  • How long will it be until I am fully recovered?
  • Should I worry about my family or friends contracting pneumonia?
  • What can I do to help along my recovery?
  • Do any of my current medications interact with any medications you have prescribed or supplements that I wish to take?
  • What can I do to prevent future infections?