The Facts About Pneumonia

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By Brigit Britton, M.D., MIPC Physician 

During the winter months, patients commonly visit their doctor complaining of persistent cough, fever and various respiratory symptoms.  Frustrated from lack of sleep and co-workers’ complaints, they seek answers and relief.  Many have heard of pneumonia and are concerned they may have this condition. So what exactly is pneumonia and what can you do to stay healthy this winter?

Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissue.  It is caused most often by viruses or bacteria that can enter from the upper respiratory system.  Patients usually present with productive cough, fever, chills, trouble breathing, chest pain and fatigue. The actual causative organism varies depending on persons’ age, medical conditions, recent hospitalizations and overall immune status.  The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in adults is Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus).  This can lead to a severe infection in elderly patients or those with a weakened immune system.  Young adults (<40yrs) usually present with infection caused by atypical bacteria (such as Mycoplasma, Chlamydophila or Legionella). This atypical pneumonia, otherwise known as “walking pneumonia”, rarely causes severe illness but tends to make patients miserable with a lingering cough.

Viruses also account for many cases of pneumonia, especially in children. These infections tend to be relatively mild and short-lived. However, infection caused by the influenza virus deserves special attention. Not only can the flu virus directly infect the lung, but it also weakens the body’s immune system making it more susceptible to bacterial infections.  Influenza complicated by bacterial pneumonia can be extremely serious, even in otherwise healthy individuals.

To diagnose pneumonia, your doctor will do a thorough lung exam and may order a chest x-ray. Treatment depends on the cause and can include antibiotics, antivirals, inhaled medications, cough suppressants and fever reducers.  For most cases of uncomplicated pneumonia, symptoms improve in 1-2 weeks, although a cough can linger for up to a month. You may also need a follow up x-ray to ensure the infection is resolving.

Prevention is key and it is important to take measures to protect yourself this winter.  If you are 65yrs and older or have certain chronic conditions, talk to your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccine.  Make sure to also get your flu vaccine each season, practice good hand hygiene and quit smoking.  Maintain a healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise and a balanced diet. This will not only keep you healthy this winter, but all year long.