Pneumonia

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a type of lung infection that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi in the air around you or on surfaces you touch. The infection causes the tissues to become inflamed in parts of one or both lungs. The tissues may be swollen and irritated or filled with fluid or pus, making breathing more difficult. It may occur spontaneously, though it occasionally follows other illnesses. Pneumonia occurring during or after the flu can be especially dangerous. If your condition worsens after a few days of flu symptoms or after having the flu, you should see a doctor immediately.

Pneumonia affects millions of people each year around the globe. Though pneumonia occurs frequently in healthy people, it is a more serious problem in infants, young children, adults over age 65, those with weakened immune systems, and those with other medical conditions, especially ones involving the lungs and heart. In the United States, roughly 250,000 people are admitted to the hospital for pneumonia annually and around 50,000 of these cases are fatal.

 

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

Depending on the person and the type of pneumonia, symptoms can range from mild to extremely severe. In general, symptoms may be similar to those of a cold or flu but worse at the beginning or grow increasingly worse. In infants, older adults, and those with communication problems or developmental delays, the symptoms may be less typical and more general, such as poor appetite or feeding, malaise or fatigue, weakness, and or change in mental status (confusion or continuous sleeping). The following are common symptoms of pneumonia:

  • Coughing (dry or with mucus)
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the chest when breathing
  • Chills or sweats
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache


When pneumonia is treated, symptoms generally last seven to 10 days. Sometimes pneumonia symptoms can last for two to three weeks or longer, especially fatigue and exercise intolerance.

If you are older than 65, have chronic heart or lung conditions, or experience any of the following symptoms, see a physician as soon as possible:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme muscle aches
  • Increasing chest pain
  • Fever of 102° Fahrenheit or higher
  • Loss of appetite
  • Consistent coughing up of phlegm or pus

 

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

If you believe you may have pneumonia, it is important to see a physician. In addition to a physical exam and lung evaluation with a stethoscope, pneumonia is usually diagnosed with a chest x-ray. If necessary, your physician may also perform a blood test(s), a chest CT, or other tests to confirm pneumonia and rule out other causes of your symptoms.

 

How is pneumonia prevented?

Most cases of pneumonia are not highly contagious. Pneumonia can be prevented by following the best practices for healthy living, including the following:

  • Washing your hands often with soap and warm water, especially in crowded areas or when those around you are sick;
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue rather than into your hand (if a tissue is not available, try to cough into your elbow);
  • Regularly cleaning high-traffic surfaces and materials, such as door handles and faucets; and
  • Not smoking.


Additionally, commonly recommended vaccines can prevent certain types of pneumonia, including the flu vaccine, pneumococcal vaccines (Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23), and DTaP and Tdap (pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria) vaccines. These vaccines are available at every Patient First center location on a walk-in basis. To find a list of the vaccines offered at each center, please see our Immunizations page.

It is also important for prevention to know if you or a loved one falls into a high-risk group for contracting pneumonia, such as the following:

  • Adults over 65 years old;
  • Children under five years old;
  • Smokers;
  • People with weakened immune systems (due to diseases including cancer, organ transplantation, lack of spleen, HIV/AIDS, or medications that suppress or may suppress the immune system such as chemotherapy, anti-rejection medications, and steroids);
  • People with chronic medical conditions (including diabetes, cystic fibrosis, asthma, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney failure, sickle cell anemia, and others); and
  • People who have been hospitalized recently, especially those who stayed in an intensive care unit or used a ventilator to assist with breathing.

 

How is pneumonia treated?

Due to the difficulty in determining the specific cause of pneumonia, most pneumonia is treated with antibiotics, antivirals, or both. The type of antibiotics and antivirals prescribed by your health care provider depends on your age and the suspected cause. Pneumonia symptoms usually begin to improve with antibiotics after two to three days of taking the medication. However, it is important to follow instructions and take all medication as directed, even if symptoms clear up. In some cases, pneumonia can be fatal or lead to serious complications, such as respiratory failure, sepsis and shock that can cause widespread organ failure, or an abscess of the lung(s) or chest cavity. If you do not see improvement in symptoms after two to three days, you should return to see your doctor. If symptoms worsen at any time, you should see a health care provider immediately.

It is also helpful to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. It may take several weeks to a couple of months to feel back to normal, depending on the cause of the pneumonia and its severity.

If symptoms do not fully clear up after a few weeks or are slowly getting worse, follow up with your physician. If needed, you can come into any Patient First center from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. any day of the week with no appointment.