Until the late 1930s, pneumonia was the number one cause of death in the United States, but thanks to improved antibiotics, pneumonia now ranks as the eighth most common cause of death in the United States.
Pneumonia results in inflammation in the lungs and is caused by 30 different types of bacteria, viruses, mycoplasms, fungi, other infectious agents and certain chemicals. When the lungs become inflamed, the air sacs, which are where the blood gets oxygen, fill with pus and other fluids making the oxygen exchange more difficult. Pneumonia may develop suddenly and cause difficulty breathing, severe cough, chest pain, fever and chills. Older adults, young children, people with chronic diseases and anyone with an impaired immune system are at higher risk for developing pneumonia.
Types of pneumonia
Pneumonia can be divided into several different types, including:
- Bacterial pneumonia is most commonly caused by streptococcus pneumoniae, but it also can be caused by a number of other bacterial infections. Symptoms may begin suddenly or come on gradually and include extreme chills, a severe cough that produces a greenish or rust-colored mucus, and chest pain. Some people have fevers that can reach as high as 105º F, and the lack of oxygen in the blood may cause the person’s lips and fingernails to look blue. As symptoms progress, the person also may become confused.
- Viruses, which can’t be treated with antibiotics, are believed to cause up to half of all pneumonias. Influenza (the flu) can result in viral pneumonia, and many deaths related to the flu are actually caused when the viral infection in the lungs progresses into pneumonia. The symptoms of pneumonia are the same as the flu, but when the viral infection becomes pneumonia, the symptoms worsen and the cough begins to produce mucus. The person’s fever goes even higher and lack of oxygen in the blood results in bluish lips and fingernails. Viral pneumonia also may result in a secondary bacterial infection.
- Mycoplasms have characteristics of both bacteria and viruses, and they can cause a mild form of pneumonia that affects people of all ages and is generally widespread in a community. With a mycoplasm infection, the person’s cough comes in violent attacks but only produces small amounts of white mucus. The person may have fever, chills and fatigue.
- Other types of pneumonia can be caused by fungus or by inhaling food, liquids, gases or dust.
Pneumonia can be a life-threatening disease, so you should see your doctor if you’re having trouble breathing or have a cough that produces mucus. You also should seek medical help if you’ve had the flu and your symptoms don’t improve or get worse. Anyone who has a fever higher than 102º F should be seen by a doctor.
The treatment for pneumonia depends on the underlying cause. Antibiotics can successfully treat bacterial pneumonia, but more types of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. In some cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed for cases of viral pneumonia. Your doctor may use medications to help lower the fever and help you deal with the cough associated with pneumonia.
Milder cases of pneumonia may be treated at home, but for people with more severe symptoms or those who have serious underlying health conditions, the doctor may need to admit the person to the hospital for more advanced care. This might include intravenous antibiotics and oxygen treatments.
It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions when it comes to treating pneumonia. You should take antibiotics at the correct times and until they are gone. Don’t skip doses or quit taking the pills when you feel better. You’ll need to get lots of rest in order for your body to heal, and if you smoke, this is a good time to quit.
You can prevent many types of pneumonia, and since many cases of pneumonia actually start with the influenza virus, you should get a flu shot every year. There’s also a vaccination for pneumonoccal pneumonia, which doctors recommend for anyone:
- With a chronic disease such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and sickle cell anemia.
- Recovering from a serious illness.
- In a nursing home or long-term care facility.
- Who is age 65 or older.
Generally, this vaccine is given once every five years and is not recommended for children under two years of age or for women who are pregnant.
The easiest ways to prevent pneumonia are to wash your hands, stop smoking and take care of yourself.
Frequent hand washing using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can prevent the spread of many diseases including colds, flu and pneumonia. While there’s no “season” for good hygiene, it’s a good idea to pay attention to hand washing and cleaning frequently touched surfaces during the fall and winter months.
Smoking causes damage to the lungs making it harder for them to fight off infections. By stopping smoking, you can help your lungs stay healthier, so you can ask your doctor for ways to help you stop smoking.
You can help your body stay healthier and fight off infections by getting enough rest and eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. You also should get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week.