Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The air sacs may fill with fluid or pus, producing a cough, which may bring up thick phlegm.
A variety of organisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can cause pneumonia. The condition is most serious for infants and young children, people older than age 65, and people with underlying health problems or weakened immune systems. Factors that increase your risk of developing pneumonia include:
- Certain chronic diseases. This includes diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease.
- Weakened or suppressed immune system. HIV/AIDS, an organ transplant, chemotherapy to treat cancer or long-term steroid use can weaken your immune system.
- Smoking. It damages your body’s natural defenses against the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia.
- A ventilator. Being on a ventilator while hospitalized to help you breathe increases the risk of pneumonia.
Signs and symptoms may vary from mild to severe. Mild symptoms often are similar to those of a cold or flu, but they last longer.
- Fever, sweating and shaking chills
- Lower than normal body temperature
- Cough, which may produce thick, sticky fluid
- Chest pain when you breathe deeply or cough
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue and muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
Newborns and infants may not show any sign of the infection. Or they may vomit, have a fever and cough, appear restless or tired and without energy, or have difficulty breathing and eating.
Older people with pneumonia sometimes have sudden changes in mental awareness.
WHAT TESTS TO EXPECT
Your doctor will likely listen to your lungs with a stethoscope to check for abnormal bubbling or crackling sounds that indicate the presence of thick liquid.
If pneumonia is suspected, tests may be performed to make a diagnosis and determine the type of infection. They include a chest X-ray, blood and sputum tests, and oxygen level measurements.
If you have serious symptoms or an underlying health condition, other tests may include:
- Pleural fluid culture. A fluid sample is taken from the thin tissue lining that surrounds the lungs (pleural area) and analyzed to help determine the type of infection.
- Bronchoscopy. A thin, flexible tube with a camera is inserted down your throat and into your airways to check if something is blocking the airways or another condition is contributing to your pneumonia.
The goals of treatment are to cure the infection and prevent any complications. Specific treatments depend on the type and severity of your pneumonia, and your age and overall health. The options include:
- Antibiotics. They’re used to treat bacterial pneumonia. Symptoms often improve within three days, although improvement usually takes twice as long as smokers.
- Antiviral medications. Antiviral drugs may be used to treat certain types of viral pneumonia. Symptoms generally improve in one to three weeks.
- Fever reducers. These include the over-the-counter medications aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen.
- Cough medicine. Because coughing helps loosen and move fluid from your lungs, it’s a good idea not to eliminate your cough completely. Cough medicine may help you rest at night.
Hospitalization may be necessary for severe symptoms or in people older than 65 and very young children.
To help you recover more quickly and decrease your risk of complications:
- Get plenty of rest. Even when you start to feel better, be careful not to overdo it.
- Stay home from school or work. Don’t return to your normal schedule until your temperature returns to normal and you stop coughing up mucus. Because pneumonia can recur, don’t resume a full workload until you’re sure you’re well.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids, especially water, help loosen mucus in your lungs.
- Take all your medications. If you stop medication too soon, your lungs may continue to harbor bacteria that can multiply and cause your pneumonia to recur.
A vaccine can help prevent the most common type of pneumonia. Doctors recommend a one-time vaccine against Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (pneumococcus) for everyone older than age 65, as well as people living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, or who smoke. A second shot may be recommended.