Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs that causes inflammation in the alveoli (air sacs). The alveoli then fill with fluid or pus, making it difficult to breathe. Rather than having a single defined cause, multiple vectors of infection, including viral, bacterial and fungal can be responsible for causing a case of pneumonia. While pneumonia in itself is not contagious, a virus or bacteria that may lead to pneumonia can be infectious to others. Fungal infections that lead to pneumonia can be environmental, so while it can’t be spread from person to person, fungal pneumonia can appear in clusters.
Common viruses, like the common cold and flu may induce pneumonia, especially in the very young and over 65 age bracket, or in any person with a comorbid condition that may weaken the immune system. Globally, pneumonia is responsible for the death of over 1 million children under five every year, making it more deadly to the young than any other infectious disease.
The most common, and deadly form of pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, a bacterial pneumonia caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium. Unlike most pneumoniae which is strictly a lung disease, pneumococcal pneumonia can spread to the upper respiratory tract, blood, middle ear and nervous system. This form of pneumonia is most commonly diagnosed in children under five and people over 65. Every year, over 77,000 Australians are hospitalised with some form of pneumonia, with the average length of stay ranging from 6 to 13 days depending on the age of the patient.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 can cause pneumonia. This is the major pneumonia risk at the current time, due both to the transmissibility of the virus and the fact that it affects the elderly at high rates. According to the World Health Organisation, the most common diagnosis of severe COVID-19 is severe pneumonia.
There are many potential symptoms for pneumonia, but the first that are noticed are usually a cough, chest pain and shortness of breath. Depending on the cause of the pneumonia and the severity of the infection, symptoms can include any and all of the following:
- Chest pain (pleuritic pain) that gets worse when you try and take a deep breath
- Confusion or delirium, especially in older adults
- Cough - usually wet
- Cyanosis - blue or purplish lips or skin due to poor blood oxygenation
- Elevated heart rate
- Fatigue and weakness
- Muscle and joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Phlegm - typically green, yellow or brown. Bacterial pneumonia caused by the mycoplasma bacteria can also cause white phlegm
- Shortness of breath
Typically people with viral pneumonia will display more symptoms than those with bacterial pneumonia. Whatever the cause, pneumonia can be a dangerous and potentially disease, so if you are experiencing symptoms, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
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Treatment and Prevention of Pneumonia
While many people who develop pneumonia will only have mild to moderate symptoms and can recover at home with rest and plenty of fluids, depending on the age of the patient and severity of the infection, medication and hospitalisation may be required. Antibiotics are the most commonly prescribed medication for pneumonia. It is important to make a specific infection diagnosis as antibiotics are of no value in viral or fungal pneumonia.
With pneumonia responsible for the deaths of so many children each year, preventing the disease is far more important than a cure. Luckily there are many steps that can be taken to safeguard children against pneumonia, the main one being a full course of immunisations. Many childhood diseases can cause inflammation in the lungs leading to pneumonia, so being up to date with Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), measles, pertussis (whooping cough) and pneumococcus is invaluable. Maintaining healthy practices, like proper hand hygiene is also a good way to avoid possible infections.
In adults, there are also a number of steps that can be taken to reduce instances of pneumonia. Any activity that can compromise the lungs can increase both the chance of developing pneumonia and the severity of the disease, so quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake can protect you. Vaccination against pneumococcus is also recommended for people over the age of 65, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, and those with compromised immune systems due to disease, organ damage or transplant. Asthmatics and diabetics should also consider the pneumococcal vaccine. Much like with children, good hand hygiene can help reduce the chance of infection from viruses or bacteria that can cause pneumonia.
If you’re coughing up multicoloured lung gunk and have chest pains when you try and take a deep breath, don’t ignore the symptoms. The easiest and fastest way to find a doctor and book an appointment is with MyHealth1st. Out booking service is active 24 hours a day, so you don’t need to wait until office hours to book your next appointment.