What is Pneumonia

In light of Hillary Clinton’s recent diagnosis of pneumonia, many people are wondering what exactly is this condition and how seriously should it be taken? 

Anyone can get pneumonia and it is a common complication of the respiratory system affecting more than 3 million people each year.  It is a serious condition that should not be taken for granted as in the U.S. around 1 million people will have to be hospitalized because of it and about 50,000 people die from it every year. 

It tends to be more serious for

·         Infants and young children

·         Adults 65 and older

·         People with other health problems

·         People with weakened immune systems

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammation and infection of the air sacs in the lungs known as alveoli.  The inflammation can affect one or both lungs and the air sacs may be filled with fluid or pus causing various symptoms. 

The symptoms of this condition can vary from mild to severe with the severity depending on what the infection is caused by which can range from bacteria, viruses or fungi.  There is a noninfectious type of pneumonia that is caused by inhaling or aspirating foreign matter or toxic substances into the lungs.

What causes pneumonia?

There are different germs that can lead to its cause which can include:

·         Bacteria

·         Viruses

·         Mycoplasmas

·         Other infectious agents, including fungi

·         Various chemicals

There are certain risk factors that do increase a person’s chance of developing pneumonia:

·         Smoking

·         Chronic lung disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis

·         Dementia, stroke, brain injury, cerebral palsy, or other brain disorders

·         Low immunity such as during cancer treatment, or due to HIV/AIDS, or organ transplants

·         Heart disease, liver cirrhosis, or diabetes

·         Recent surgery or trauma

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of pneumonia can include:

·         Cough with phlegm or pus

·         Fever which can be mild or high

·         Shaking chills

·         Shortness of breath which only occur when climbing stairs or when exerting oneself

·         Confusion, especially in older people

·         Headache

·         Excess sweating and clammy skin

·         Loss of appetite, low energy, and fatigue

·         Sharp or stabling when you breathe in deeply

How is it diagnosed?

Pneumonia is diagnosed starting with the doctor listening to the lungs with a stethoscope.  If pneumonia is present, the lungs will make crackling, bubbling, and rumbling sounds when you inhale along with wheezing.  If pneumonia is suspected, then a chest x-ray will be done to diagnosis it.  The chest x-ray cannot tell what kind of germ is causing it so blood tests involving taking samples of blood will be done to determine the exact cause. 

Other tests that may be conducted include a CT scan of the chest, bronchoscopy, sputum test, bronchoscopy or a pleural fluid culture.

Treating pneumonia

If the pneumonia is caused by bacteria, antibiotics will be given right away.  If it is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not given as antibiotics do not kill viruses.  Other medications such as antivirals may be given. 

 Many people can be treated at home but admission to a hospital may be necessary if a person has other serious medical problems or severe symptoms, is unable to care for themselves at home, are older than 65, and if antibiotics are not helping or symptoms are getting worse.

Prognosis of pneumonia

Once a person is treated, most people will improve within 2 weeks but older adults or very sick people may take a longer time to recover.

However, if serious problems develop than it can become life-threatening which can include:

·         Life-threatening changes in the lungs that require a breathing machine

·         Fluid around the lung – pleural effusion

·         Infected fluid around the lung – empyema

·         Lung abscesses

How to prevent pneumonia

Prevention of pneumonia is the best way to avoid it and generally involves basic good hygiene practices to help lessen the likelihood.  There are several steps one can take to reduce their risk:

·         Get a flu vaccine every year and the pneumococcal vaccine.  It is recommended that everyone 65 and older get two pneumococcal vaccines – PPSV23 and PCV13.  Inquiry with a person’s physician can guide them on when to obtain these vaccines.

·         Don’t smoke

·         Avoid sick people

·         Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep to help keep the immune system strong

·         Frequent handwashing before preparing and eating food, after blowing the nose, after using the restroom, changing a baby’s diaper and coming into contact with people who are sick.