Should I Be Concerned About Pneumonia?

4 min read  |  May 14, 2024  | 

COVID-19 heightened our awareness of respiratory diseases like pneumonia. We hear about it in the media, in television commercials about the vaccine, and in doctor’s offices. Should you be concerned?

What causes pneumonia?

The first step in understanding your risks is knowing what causes these infections. Basically, pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The infection can stem from an airborne pathogen such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi. 

Pneumonia: One illness with several versions

This type of respiratory illness can spread in several ways.

Bacterial pneumonias are especially common.

Streptococcus pneumoniae can crop up independently or after a cold or flu.

“Walking pneumonia”, which originates from a bacteria-like organism, is called that because it’s a milder infection that generally wouldn’t confine you to bed.

Fungal infections result from breathing in large amounts of organisms found in soil or bird droppings; they are more likely to affect people with weak immune systems. Viral pneumonia happens when a person gets sick from a virus. These instances tend to be mild but can become serious if they arise as a complication from COVID-19. 

Hospital- and healthcare-acquired pneumonia are more serious, especially if the hospitalized person is already sick or on a breathing machine. These infections can also result from particularly strong, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

People living in a long-term care facility, such as a nursing home or those who regularly receive care in an outpatient facility, have a higher likelihood of healthcare-acquired infection. And these individuals are already more vulnerable because of an existing medical condition or their age. Healthcare-acquired respiratory illnesses can also come from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Though less common, lung infections may occur if a person inhales liquid, food, saliva, or vomit into their lungs. Aspiration pneumonia is more likely in individuals who have a swallowing disorder or a drug or alcohol problem. 

Signs and symptoms of pneumonia

When an infection occurs, the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid or pus. An infected person may experience: 

  • Persistent coughing with phlegm or pus
  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Fever, sweating, chills, and trembling
  • Below average body temperature (in older adults or individuals with a weakened immune system)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue 
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Confusion or disorientation (in older adults)

Pneumonia is trickier to spot in infants since they don’t always have symptoms. Some babies, however, will cough, vomit, or run a fever. They may have trouble breathing or eating or act tired or fidgety. 

Are you at risk for pneumonia?

As with many diseases, this illness is more dangerous at opposite ends of the age spectrum – children under age two and adults over age 65. People with weakened or compromised immune systems are also more vulnerable. Therefore, people receiving chemotherapy should report respiratory issues to their doctor.

Smokers and people with breathing problems such as Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disorder (COPD) also need to speak with their doctor if their breathing becomes more labored than usual. 

Should you see a doctor?

High-risk individuals must get timely medical care. Anyone experiencing a cough (especially if phlegm or pus is present), chest pain, and running a fever of 102 degrees or 39 centigrade should see a doctor immediately. 

You’ve got pneumonia, now what?

There are several ways to treat this condition, from simple bed rest and hydration to antibiotics or hospitalization.

If you require hospitalization, you may need to be placed on a ventilator to help with your breathing.

In rare cases, doctors may drain excess fluid in your lungs may be drained with a chest tube or a surgical procedure. 

How can I protect myself?

If you have a higher-than-normal chance of getting a respiratory infection, there are several ways you can protect your health:

  • Avoid large social gatherings or crowded spaces during cold and flu season, or wear a mask.
  • Maintain healthy habits: exercise, eat healthy, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and wash your hands regularly.
  • Wear a mask when performing tasks that compromise air quality – whether at work, home or in your yard.
  • Quit smoking
  • Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia – vaccines don’t protect against all strains of these illnesses, but may offer some protection, especially for high-risk children and adults.

The key takeaway? Be proactive – know your risks and speak to your doctor about ways to protect yourself. 

Article was medically reviewed by E. Robert Schwartz M.D., FAAFP, a family medicine physician at the University of Miami Health System. 

Article compiled by Nancy Moreland, a UHealth Collective contributor.

Tags: Breathing, Dr. E Robert Schwartz, infections, Osher Center for Integrative Health

Continue Reading