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Pneumonia

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs. It causes the air sacs of the lungs to fill up with fluid or pus. It can range from mild to severe, depending on the type of germ causing the infection, your age, and your overall health.

What causes pneumonia?

Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can cause pneumonia.

Bacteria are the most common cause. Bacterial pneumonia can occur on its own. It can also develop after you've had certain viral infections such as a cold or the flu. Several different types of bacteria can cause pneumonia, including

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Legionella pneumophila; this pneumonia is often called Legionnaires' disease
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Chlamydia pneumoniae
  • Haemophilus influenzae

Viruses that infect the respiratory tract may cause pneumonia. Viral pneumonia is often mild and goes away on its own within a few weeks. But sometimes it is serious enough that you need to get treatment in a hospital. If you have viral pneumonia, you are at risk of also getting bacterial pneumonia. The different viruses that can cause pneumonia include

  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Some common cold and flu viruses
  • SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19

Fungal pneumonia is more common in people who have chronic health problems or weakened immune systems. Some of the types include

  • Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP)
  • Coccidioidomycosis, which causes valley fever
  • Histoplasmosis
  • Cryptococcus
Who is at risk for pneumonia?

Anyone can get pneumonia, but certain factors can increase your risk:

  • Age; the risk is higher for children who are age 2 and under and adults age 65 and older
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, pollutants, or toxic fumes
  • Lifestyle habits, such as smoking, heavy alcohol use, and malnourishment
  • Being in a hospital, especially if you are in the ICU. Being sedated and/or on a ventilator raises the risk even more.
  • Having a lung disease
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Have trouble coughing or swallowing, from a stroke or other condition
  • Recently being sick with a cold or the flu
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

The symptoms of pneumonia can range from mild to severe and include

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough, usually with phlegm (a slimy substance from deep in your lungs)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

The symptoms can vary for different groups. Newborns and infants may not show any signs of the infection. Others may vomit and have a fever and cough. They might seem sick, with no energy, or be restless.

Older adults and people who have serious illnesses or weak immune systems may have fewer and milder symptoms. They may even have a lower than normal temperature. Older adults who have pneumonia sometimes have sudden changes in mental awareness.

What other problems can pneumonia cause?

Sometimes pneumonia can cause serious complications such as

  • Bacteremia, which happens when the bacteria move into the bloodstream. It is serious and can lead to septic shock.
  • Lung abscesses, which are collections of pus in cavities of the lungs
  • Pleural disorders, which are conditions that affect the pleura. The pleura is the tissue that covers the outside of the lungs and lines the inside of your chest cavity.
  • Kidney failure
  • Respiratory failure
How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Sometimes pneumonia can be hard to diagnose. This is because it can cause some of the same symptoms as a cold or the flu. It may take time for you to realize that you have a more serious condition.

To make a diagnosis, your health care provider

  • Will ask about medical history and symptoms
  • Will do a physical exam, including listening to your lungs with a stethoscope
  • May do tests, including
    • Chest x-ray
    • Blood tests such as a complete blood count (CBC) to see if your immune system is actively fighting an infection
    • Blood culture to find out whether you have a bacterial infection that has spread to your bloodstream

If you are in the hospital, have serious symptoms, are older, or have other health problems, you may also have more tests, such as

  • Sputum test, which checks for bacteria in a sample of your sputum (spit) or phlegm (slimy substance from deep in your lungs).
  • Chest CT scan to see how much of your lungs is affected. It may also show if you have complications such as lung abscesses or pleural effusions.
  • Pleural fluid culture, which checks for bacteria in a fluid sample that was taken from the pleural space
  • Pulse oximetry or blood oxygen level test, to check how much oxygen is in your blood
  • Bronchoscopy, a procedure used to look inside your lungs' airways
What are the treatments for pneumonia?

Treatment for pneumonia depends on the type of pneumonia, which germ is causing it, and how severe it is:

  • Antibiotics treat bacterial pneumonia and some types of fungal pneumonia. They do not work for viral pneumonia.
  • In some cases, your provider may prescribe antiviral medicines for viral pneumonia
  • Antifungal medicines treat other types of fungal pneumonia

You may need to be treated in a hospital if your symptoms are severe or if you are at risk for complications. While there, you may get additional treatments. For example, if your blood oxygen level is low, you may receive oxygen therapy.

It may take time to recover from pneumonia. Some people feel better within a week. For other people, it can take a month or more.

Can pneumonia be prevented?

Vaccines can help prevent pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria or the flu virus. Having good hygiene, not smoking, and having a healthy lifestyle may also help prevent pneumonia.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Pneumocystis Infections

Pneumocystis jirovecii is a tiny fungus that lives in the lungs of many people. Most people's immune systems keep the fungus under control. But if you have a weakened immune system, the fungus can make you very sick.

The most common type of infection is pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP). PCP once was the major cause of death for people with HIV/AIDS. But now, it is possible to prevent or treat most cases. The key to surviving PCP is early treatment. The first signs of PCP are fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. If you have a weakened immune system and have these symptoms, see your doctor right away.

To diagnose PCP, doctors use a microscope to look for the fungus in a sample of lung fluid or tissue. Treatment is with antibiotics.

There is no vaccine to prevent PCP. Some people who are at high risk of getting PCP may need to take antibiotics to prevent it.

Legionnaires' Disease

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria. You usually get it by breathing in mist from water that contains the bacteria. The mist may come from hot tubs, showers, or air-conditioning units for large buildings. The bacteria don't spread from person to person.

Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include high fever, chills, a cough, and sometimes muscle aches and headaches. Other types of pneumonia have similar symptoms. You will probably need a chest x-ray to diagnose the pneumonia. Lab tests can detect the specific bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease.

Most people exposed to the bacteria do not become sick. You are more likely to get sick if you

  • Are older than 50
  • Smoke
  • Have a chronic lung disease
  • Have a weak immune system

Legionnaires' disease is serious and can be life-threatening. However, most people recover with antibiotic treatment.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

HIV/AIDS and Infections

Having HIV/AIDS weakens your body's immune system. It destroys the white blood cells that fight infection. This puts you at risk for opportunistic infections (OIs). OIs are serious infections that take advantage of your weak immune system. These infections are less common and less severe in healthy people.

There are many types of OIs:

  • Bacterial infections, including tuberculosis and a serious related disease, Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC)
  • Viral infections, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) and hepatitis C
  • Fungal infections, like yeast infections, cryptococcal meningitis, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and histoplasmosis
  • Parasitic infections, such as crypto (cryptosporidiosis) and toxo (toxoplasmosis)

Having HIV/AIDS can make infections harder to treat. People with HIV/AIDS are also more likely to have complications from common illnesses such as the flu.

You can help prevent infections by taking your HIV/AIDS medicines. Other things that can help include practicing safe sex, washing your hands well and often, and cooking your food thoroughly.

Infection Control

Every year, lives are lost because of the spread of infections in hospitals. Health care workers can take steps to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. These steps are part of infection control.

Proper hand washing is the most effective way to prevent the spread of infections in hospitals. If you are a patient, don't be afraid to remind friends, family and health care providers to wash their hands before getting close to you.

Other steps health care workers can take include

  • Covering coughs and sneezes
  • Staying up to date with vaccinations
  • Using gloves, masks and protective clothing
  • Making tissues and hand cleaners available
  • Following hospital guidelines when dealing with blood or contaminated items