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What You Need to Know About Pneumonia

Posted 2/16/2017 by UHBlog

What do you need to know about preventing pneumonia? Ask us.

What You Need to Know About Pneumonia

Did someone you know come down with pneumonia recently? That's not surprising. Nearly one million adults in the U.S. are hospitalized with pneumonia every year, and about 50,000 die from it.

“Pneumonia spikes during the cold and flu season, but we see it all year long,” says internal medicine specialist Katherine Eilenfeld, DO. “It is so common that many people underestimate how deadly it can be.”

Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissue. The cause most often is bacterial, but viruses and funguses can also be the culprit. Seniors, especially in nursing homes or with other medical conditions, are at increased risk for the disease.

When the infection starts, fluids collect in your lungs. This leads to less air exchange with every breath. There is an incredible strain on the lungs, heart and every organ that requires oxygen, which is why pneumonia can hit people very hard compared to other diseases.

Some people have at higher risk of developing bacterial pneumonia, including:

  • Adults over 65
  • Infants and children
  • Those who are already ill or have impaired immunity
  • Long-term users of immunosuppressant drugs
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients using inhaled corticosteroids for long periods of time
  • Smokers

“We prefer to treat bacterial infection of the airways before they make it to the lungs,” Dr. Eilenfeld says. “Those who have bronchitis or what we call a chest cold should see their doctor right away, especially if you're in one of the groups at higher risk.”

If you have these symptoms, you should see your doctor promptly:

  • High fever
  • Shaking chills
  • A cough with phlegm (a slimy substance), which doesn't improve or worsens
  • Shortness of breath doing your normal daily activities
  • Chest pains when you breathe or cough
  • Feeling suddenly worse after a cold or the flu

According to Dr. Eilenfeld, viral causes of lung infections can be very severe. Often when they happen, the lungs are more prone to a secondary bacterial infection, making your illness much worse.

Pneumonia caused by a fungal infection is rare. These are most often seen in people with other immune system problems, such as chemotherapy, taking immune system suppression medications or AIDS.

As with most illnesses, the best way to treat pneumonia is to prevent it. Prevention includes:

  • Practicing good hygiene, such as washing your hands often with soap and water
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Following a healthy diet
  • Doing physical activity to help keep your immune system strong
  • Staying away from friends or relatives who have a cold or the flu

“Another thing to underscore is the incredible amount of additional risk that comes from smoking,” says Dr. Eilenfeld. “It doesn’t affect the likelihood of catching pneumonia, but when pneumonia starts, people who smoke get sicker faster. Scar tissue in the lungs puts them at much higher risk for quicker progression or becoming more deadly.”

Vaccinations are also an important part of prevention. There are two major vaccines for bacterial pneumonia, Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax. They are given around 12 months apart. Current guidelines suggest that you get vaccinated when you’re 65. However, if you're in one of the other risk groups, then you should consider vaccinated sooner.

Unlike flu shots that are given at certain times of the year, pneumonia vaccines can be given at any time. Also unlike influenza, after you have been initially given both kinds of vaccine, you only need booster shots after 10 years.

Also, says Dr. Eilenfeld, the flu vaccine covers viruses instead of bacteria. Because of this, you will still need to get your annual flu shots on time, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

“Pneumonia is something we see frequently and when we catch it early, good things happen,” she says. “But if we don't – or someone is in an already weakened state – it's very scary and very deadly.”

Katherine Eilenfeld, DO is an internal medicine specialist at University Hospitals Westshore Primary Care. You can request an appointment with Dr. Eilenfeld or any other doctor online.

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