Today's Medicine

Pneumonia Basics: Causes, Symptoms and When to Seek Treatment

The simple definition of pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, but there’s much more to know. 

Causes and symptoms

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungus. It can be a complication of a viral infection such as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus or rhinoviruses. Young children and adults over 65 also are more susceptible to streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause a serious form of bacterial pneumonia. Your body’s extreme efforts to fight that infection can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening condition than can damage your organs.

In addition to that lousy overall feeling, common symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Productive cough with green, yellow, gray or rusty-colored sputum
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Confusion among elderly people
  • Lethargy
  • Low oxygen levels, often resulting in blue lips and fingers

What is walking pneumonia?

You may have heard the term walking pneumonia. It really just refers to a more mild case of pneumonia because you still feel able to perform your usual tasks. You should still take it seriously and get evaluated.

Is pneumonia contagious?

Bacterial pneumonia and viral pneumonia are contagious. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets in the air can pass it on to others. The flu is highly contagious and can be a precursor to pneumonia.

Other forms of pneumonia are less contagious to healthy individuals or not contagious at all.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get pneumonia, but young children and adults over 65 are more at risk. People with diabetes, heart failure, COPD, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, cancer, AIDS or other conditions that compromise the immune system also are at greater risk.

Pneumonia prevention

There are ways to lower your risk of getting pneumonia. They include:

Vaccines: First off, getting the flu shot is key to preventing pneumonia. There are also vaccines that protect against many types of pneumococcal bacteria. Prevnar 13® is recommended for infants, young children, adults over 65 and some other people at risk for pneumococcal disease. For people over 65 and some other at-risk people, Pneumovax®23 also is available.

But remember: There are so many forms of pneumonia that you can’t consider yourself completely protected even after you’ve been vaccinated.

Smoking cessation: Smoking increases your risk for pneumonia because it compromises your lung tissue. Consider this one more reason to kick the habit.

Keep it clean: Properly washing your hands and disinfecting high-touch areas is important to keep pneumonia from spreading. Here are some more hygiene tips

Pneumonia diagnosis and treatment

A clinical evaluation is necessary to diagnose pneumonia. The process may include taking your temperature, listening to your lungs with a stethoscope, analyzing your sputum and performing a chest X-ray, blood test and CT scan.

Treatment of pneumonia varies on its type and severity, as well as a person’s other health issues. Antibiotics may be necessary, and plenty of rest and liquids are likely to be recommended.

When to be seen

A lot of information about pneumonia can be confusing, but we’re here to help. If you feel sick enough to be considering an appointment, come in. Together we can decide how serious your illness is and what treatment is appropriate. 

More resources

About the Author

As an internist at Methodist Physicians Clinic Cass Street, Dr. Karen Joyce strives to work cooperatively with patients to achieve their health goals.

“Listening and understanding patients’ stories is the first step in setting and accomplishing goals with them,” she said. “I really enjoy the connections I can make with patients.”

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