Five things to know about pneumonia
St. Joseph’s/Candler family nurse practitioner explains the differences between pneumonia and the flu
Coastal Georgia and South Carolina are finally starting to see some cooler weather. While it’s great to throw on a big sweatshirt and drink some hot chocolate, cold weather also increases the likelihood of getting sick. Not specifically because it’s cold outside, but in winter months germs tend to be more prevalent.
One such common illness caused by germs is pneumonia. Pneumonia is a lower respiratory tract infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, explains Ann Nguyen, Family Nurse Practitioner, with the St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Medication Management. The air sacs may fill with fluid or pus, causing cough, fever, chills and difficulty breathing.
Anyone is at risk of getting pneumonia, but some people are more at risk including young children, people older than 65 and people with weakened immune systems or certain chronic conditions.
Pneumonia can range in seriousness from mild to life-threatening, Nguyen says. “Globally, pneumonia causes more deaths than any other infectious disease,” she says. “Each year in the United States, pneumococcal disease kills thousands of adults.”
In fact, pneumococcal pneumonia – a very common type of pneumonia – kills about 1 in 20 older adults who get it. Pneumonia is also still the leading cause of death worldwide in children younger than 5-years-old.
Pneumonia tends to be more prevalent in colder temperatures, so as it starts to cool down in the Coastal Empire, here are some important things to know about pneumonia and how you can protect yourself from the serious illness.
Causes and types of pneumonia
There are different types of pneumonia, and the infection can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.
Bacterial pneumonia can occur on its own or develop when the body is weakened by a cold, the flu, poor nutrition, older age or impaired immunity. People also are at greater risk of developing a bacterial pneumonia if they abuse alcohol, smoke, are weak, have just had surgery, have a respiratory disease or viral infection or a weakened immune system.
Pneumococcal pneumonia is the most common type of bacterial pneumonia. It is caused by the Streptococcus pneumonia germ that normally lives in the upper respiratory tract, and it infects more than 90,000 Americans each year.
Viral pneumonia is caused by different viruses, including the flu. It is responsible for about one-third of all pneumonia cases. Most viral pneumonias are not serious and last a shorter time than bacterial pneumonia; however, viral pneumonia caused by the flu virus may be more severe and sometimes deadly.
Fungal pneumonia is most common in people with chronic health problems or weakened immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients. People exposed to large doses of certain fungi from contaminated soil or bird droppings also are at risk of fungal pneumonia.
Symptoms of pneumonia
The symptoms of pneumonia can vary from mild to so severe that hospitalization is required. Symptoms can vary depending on what caused the illness, as well as a person’s overall age and health.
Signs and symptoms of pneumonia can include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- High fever
- Shaking chills
- Excessive sweating
- Cough with phlegm that persists or gets worse
- Loss of appetite
“For some people, certain symptoms like cough and fatigue can last for weeks or longer, even after completion of antibiotics,” Nguyen says.
Treatment of pneumonia depends on the type of pneumonia a patient has. Bacterial pneumonia, for example, needs to be treated with antibiotics, Nguyen says. Most viral pneumonias don’t have a specific treatment and tend to get better on their own. Some physicians may prescribe an antiviral.
Most people with pneumonia respond well to treatment and can recover at home by taking medications as prescribed, drinking plenty of fluids and getting lots of rest. However, severe cases may require hospitalizations and cause further complications. Older adults, young children and people with weakened immune systems are more at risk of complications. Complications may include acute respiratory distress syndrome, lung abscesses, respiratory failure or sepsis.
It’s always important to follow the doctor’s orders and take all medications as prescribed to try to avoid any complications.
How is it different than the flu?
Pneumonia can be a complication of the flu, but the two are different. Flu is caused by the influenza virus while pneumonia, which also can be caused by a virus, is often brought about by a bacterial infection, Nguyen says.
Symptoms also may differ. Because pneumonia is a lung infection, it typically has more respiratory symptoms while the flu is accompanied by muscular aches and pains and fatigue, Nguyen says.
“Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly,” Nguyen says. “Pneumonia takes longer to develop.”
Flu patients also tend to recover after a week or two without any treatment while pneumonia patients typically turn for the worse before getting better and require prompt medical attention. Bacterial pneumonia, for example, needs to be treated with antibiotics while the flu often just requires rest to alleviate symptoms.
Both pneumonia and the flu should be taken seriously. It starts with trying to prevent the illnesses in the first place. The best way to do that is through vaccination.
Other ways to prevent pneumonia include washing your hands frequently, not smoking and practicing good health habits, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise.
The St. Joseph’s/Candler Center for Medication Management offers both the flu and pneumonia vaccine at its four locations: Savannah, Pooler, Bluffton and The Landings. You also can request both vaccines from your primary care physician.
COMING THURSDAY: Learn more about the pneumonia vaccine and when you may need it