Pneumonia is a potentially dangerous condition that occurs when the airspaces in the lungs become inflamed as a result of an infection. Typically, pneumonia is caused by either a viral infection, bacterial infection or fungi; however, other causes are possible.
In the past, pneumonia was considered much more dangerous than it was today. Adults and children who develop pneumonia can make a full recovery with the proper medical care. It is when complications occur that the disease can become hazardous.
Despite what many people think, pneumonia can be contagious. When the infection is spread, it’s usually done so by inhaling airborne droplets from a cough or a sneeze. It is possible, though, to develop pneumonia by coming into contact with a contaminated object or surface.
In order to prevent pneumonia or at least treat it swiftly if you do develop it, you must know what to look out for. Keep reading for a look at everything you need to know about pneumonia.
Types of pneumonia
There are several different kinds of pneumonia, and each one is determined by where or how you acquired it.
- Hospital-acquired pneumonia/ Healthcare-associated pneumonia (HAP/HCAP): Because it may be more resistant to antibiotics, this is usually the most serious form of pneumonia and is acquired during a hospital stay or other healthcare related exposures such as office visits, nursing homes or exposure to healthcare workers.
- Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP): This kind of pneumonia is transmitted outside of a medical or institutional setting.
- Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP): When pneumonia is caused by ventilator use.
- Aspiration pneumonia: If you inhale bacteria into your lungs from saliva, food or drink, aspiration pneumonia can occur. Often, this type of pneumonia will occur when someone has difficulty swallowing or is sedated from medication.
Causes of pneumonia
There are three main types of infectious agents that can lead to pneumonia: bacterial, viral and fungal. While other causes can occur, these three are the most common.
It’s possible that a respiratory virus can cause pneumonia. The most common are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza (flu) and rhinoviruses (common cold). In most cases, viral pneumonia is less severe and will improve on its own within one to three weeks.
Another cause of pneumonia is fungi from bird droppings or soil. Typically, this affects people with weakened immune systems. The types of fungi that can cause pneumonia include Pneumocystis jirovecii, Cryptococcus species and Histoplasmosis species.
Symptoms of pneumonia
In most cases, pneumonia will present itself similarly to a cold or the flu; however, symptoms will usually last seven to 10 days and gradually become more severe. Within a few days (to as long a week) after these symptoms begin, you will start to notice symptoms of pneumonia.
The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary in severity, depending on the overall health of the person affected. The type of pneumonia also plays a factor in symptoms. Severe symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Chest pain when you coughing or breathing
- Coughing up phlegm
- Labored breathing or shortness of breath
- Shortness of breath while doing normal activities
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
Young children may experience wheezing or fast breathing if they’re suffering from pneumonia.
It can be difficult to identify pneumonia in infants as they often exhibit no symptoms. You can look out for vomiting, a lack of energy and difficulty eating or drinking.
Typically, elderly people have milder symptoms than children and young adults. Their symptoms can also include confusion and a body temperature that is lower than normal.
How is pneumonia diagnosed?
If you’re showing signs of pneumonia, your provider will need to perform a routine physical exam to check for infection. He or she will listen for wheezing or crackling sounds in your lungs, which can be an indication of pneumonia.
If your symptoms are severe enough or you are at risk for complications, your provider may order one or more of the following tests:
- Pulse oximetry: This test measures how much oxygen is in your blood. It is done by placing a sensor on one of your fingers to see if your lungs are moving enough oxygen through your bloodstream.
- Chest X-ray: This will allow your provider to check for signs of inflammation in your chest. If any inflammation is found, your provider can also identify the severity and location.
- Sputum culture: During this test, your provider will take a sample of mucus after you’ve coughed deeply. This mucus is then sent to a lab to determine the cause of the infection.
- Blood culture: A blood culture will confirm if infection is present in your body and, if so, what’s causing it.
- CT scan: This gives your provider a clear view of your lungs.
- Fluid sample: By using a needle placed between your ribs, your provider can take a fluid sample to help identify the cause of your infection.
- Bronchoscopy: During a bronchoscopy, a camera is placed on the end of a flexible tube that’s then guided down your throat and into your lungs to provide a look into the airways of your lungs. Typically, this is only done if your initial symptoms are severe.
How your pneumonia is treated will depend on the type of pneumonia you have and its severity.
Oral antibiotics are one of the most common forms of treatment for bacterial pneumonia. It is important that you complete your full course of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better sooner, to ensure the infection clears completely.
Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t have an impact on viruses. Your provider may prescribe you an antiviral; however, most often, viral pneumonia will simply clear on its own at home.
For pneumonia caused by a fungus, antifungal medications are used. These medications usually need to be taken for several weeks before the infection is completely cleared.
How is pneumonia impacted by COVID-19?
Because it is a respiratory illness, many who catch COVID-19 will develop severe pneumonia in both lungs. Unfortunately, COVID-19 pneumonia can be severe and even lead to death.
If you are infected with COVID-19 and start to experience the following symptoms, you may be developing pneumonia:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Shortness of breath or breathlessness
- Heavy sweating
Because COVID-19 pneumonia cases are often much more severe, it’s important that you seek medical attention as soon as you notice symptoms.
In some cases, hospitalization may be needed to treat COVID-19 pneumonia. This allows patients to receive oxygen, intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration and a ventilator to help them breathe.
If you or someone in your family is showing signs of pneumonia, you should see a medical professional who can properly diagnose the infection and get you on the road to recovery.
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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.