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Here’s What You Need To Know About Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that results in more than 1 million emergency department visits in the U.S. each year and causes 50,000 deaths. It’s the leading infectious cause of death in developed countries. Here’s what you need to know about this potentially serious infection.

1. There are several ways to diagnose pneumonia.

The symptoms of pneumonia include a fever, productive cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and a loss of appetite. In addition, vomiting is a common symptom in young children, and confusion is a common symptom in elderly patients.

Patients with pneumonia are likely to have a fever (a temperature of 100.4 F or higher), a rapid heart rate and a rapid respiratory rate. They can also have an abnormally low oxygen saturation, and abnormal or absent lung sounds when a practitioner listens to the patient’s chest with a stethoscope.

The most common diagnostic tool for diagnosing pneumonia is a chest X-ray. In critically ill patients, blood cultures and sputum cultures can also be used to determine a diagnosis.

2. Several pathogens can cause pneumonia.

Pneumonia can be caused by many different organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. Bacterial pneumonia is the most common of these three. In fact, 900,000 patients in the U.S. are infected with Streptococcus pneumoniae every year, which is the most common bacterial cause of pneumonia.

Viruses can also infect the lower respiratory tract. Influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19 are common causes of viral pneumonia.

While fungal infections are rare in people who have healthy immune systems, patients who have AIDS, are on prolonged courses of oral steroids, have recently undergone an organ transplant, or are on a ventilator are vulnerable to fungal pneumonia. 

3. Many cases of pneumonia can be prevented.

Thankfully, vaccines are available to prevent many cases of pneumonia. The pediatric vaccine schedule includes vaccines that protect against pertussis, pneumococcus and Haemophilus influenzae.

Also, a pneumococcal vaccine is available for patients over 65, as well as patients 19 years and older with certain underlying medical conditions.

When it comes to viral pneumonia prevention, the annual flu shot is available for patients ages 6 months and up.

In addition to vaccines, other practices like hand washing, disinfecting hard surfaces, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, closely managing underlying conditions like asthma and diabetes, and avoiding cigarette smoke can also lower your risk of pneumonia.

4. There are risk factors for pneumonia.

While anyone can get pneumonia, there are several risk factors that make some patients more vulnerable than others. The patients at highest risk for pneumonia and subsequent complications include children under age 2, adults over age 65, smokers, patients with chronic health conditions, and patients who are immunocompromised due to underlying conditions like AIDS, or who are taking medications that suppress their immune system.

5. Pneumonia is treatable (and often curable!)

The treatment for pneumonia depends on which organism is causing the infection, and what other symptoms a patient is experiencing.

Patients with fungal pneumonia are treated with antifungal medications.

Patients with bacterial pneumonia require antibiotics. Often when patients with bacterial pneumonia are diagnosed early and treated with the appropriate antibiotic, they make a full recovery. 

When it comes to viral pneumonia, the treatment depends on which virus is causing the infection. Antiviral medications are available to treat certain viruses, including influenza. For other viruses, there isn’t an antiviral medication indicated or available.  Otherwise, healthy patients with viral pneumonia usually recover with rest, time and supportive measures.

Regardless of the pathogen causing the infection, additional options are available to alleviate symptoms and improve a patient’s outcome. These measures include nebulizer treatments, supplemental oxygen, I.V. hydration, cough suppressants and medications that alleviate pain and fever.

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