Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that is caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. It is characterized primarily by inflammation of the alveoli in the lungs or by alveoli that are filled with fluid (alveoli are microscopic sacs in the lungs that absorb oxygen).
At times a very serious condition, pneumonia can make a person very sick or even cause death. Although the disease can occur in young and healthy people, it is most dangerous for older adults, babies, and people with other diseases or impaired immune systems.
Bacteria and viruses are the primary causes of pneumonia. When a person breathes pneumonia-causing germs into his lungs and his body’s immune system cannot otherwise prevent entry, the organisms settle in small air sacs called alveoli and continue multiplying. As the body sends white blood cells to attack the infection, the sacs become filed with fluid and pus – causing pneumonia.
Pneumonia has bacterial, viral, fungal, and other primary causes
The general symptoms of bacterial pneumonia can develop quickly and may include:
1. chest pain
2. shaking chills
4. dry cough
6. muscle aches
9. rapid breathing
10. rapid heartbeat
11. difficulty breathing
Pneumonia can be easily overlooked as the cause of an illness because it often resembles a cold or the flu. However, it usually lasts longer and symptoms seem more severe than these other conditions.
A pneumonia diagnosis usually begins with a physical exam and a discussion about your symptoms and medical history. A doctor may suspect pneumonia if they hear coarse breathing, wheezing, crackling sounds, or rumblings when listening to the chest through a stethoscope.
Chest x-rays and blood tests may be ordered to confirm a pneumonia diagnosis. A chest x-ray can confirm pneumonia and determine its location and extent in the lungs. Blood tests measure white blood cell count to determine the severity of pneumonia and can be used to determine whether the infection is bacterial, viral, fungal, etc. An analysis of sputum also can be used to determine the organism that is causing the pneumonia.
A more invasive diagnostic tool is the bronchoscopy – a procedure whereby the patient is under anesthesia and a thin, flexible, and lighted tube is inserted into the nose or mouth to directly examine the infected parts of the lung.
Pneumonia treatments depend on the type of pneumonia and the severity of symptoms. Bacterial pneumonias are usually treated with antibiotics, whereas viral pneumonias are treated with rest and plenty of fluids. Fungal pneumonias are usually treated with antifungal medications.
Over-the-counter medications are also commonly prescribed to better manage pneumonia symptoms. These include treatments for reducing fever, reducing aches and pains, and suppressing coughs. In addition, it is important to get plenty of rest and sleep and drink lots of fluids.
Hospitalization for pneumonia may be required if symptoms are especially bad or a patient has a weakened immune system or other serious illness. At the hospital, patients generally are treated with intravenous antibiotics and possibly put on oxygen.
There are several ways to prevent pneumonia. There are two vaccines that are available to prevent pneumococcal disease (the bacterial infection that is the most common cause of pneumonia): pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (Prevnar) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (Pneumovax).
Prevnar is generally administered as part of the normal infant immunization procedure and is recommended for children less than 2 years of age or between two and four years with certain medical conditions.
Pneumovax is provided for adults who are at increased risk of developing pneumococcal pneumonia, such as the elderly, diabetics, those with chronic heart, lung, or kidney disease, alcoholics, smokers, and those without a spleen. The pneumonia vaccine may not completely prevent older adults from getting pneumonia, but it can reduce the severity of a future pneumonia.
In addition to vaccinations, physicians recommend that people wash hands, refrain from smoking, eat healthfully, exercise, and stay away from sputum or cough particles from others with pneumonia.