- Written by Nancy J. Schaaf, RN Nancy J. Schaaf, RN
Anyone can get pneumonia. It is a common illness, with millions of people diagnosed yearly in the United States. Of those, pneumonia leads to about 55,000 deaths.
Pneumonia, caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, is a lung infection resulting in inflammation and fluid or pus forming. Pneumonia can affect one or both lungs.
People experience different symptoms depending on whether the cause is viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Bacterial pneumonia tends to be more common and severe than viral pneumonia and is likely to cause a stay in the hospital. Viral pneumonia causes flu-like symptoms and is more likely to resolve independently.
It can be challenging to tell the difference between the symptoms of a cold, the flu, and pneumonia; only a physician can diagnose you.
Pneumonia can range in seriousness from mild to life-threatening. It is most serious for infants and young children, people older than 65, and people with health problems or weakened immune systems.
The signs and symptoms of pneumonia vary from mild to severe, depending on factors such as the type of germ causing the infection and your age and overall health.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Chest pain when you breathe or cough
- Cough, which may produce phlegm
- Fever, sweating, and shaking chills
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath
- In those over 65 and with compromised immune systems, confusion or changes in mental awareness and lower body temperature
High-risk groups are:
- Children younger than age 2 with signs and symptoms
- Adults older than age 65
- People with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system
- People receiving chemotherapy or taking medication that suppresses the immune system
- For some older adults and people with heart failure or chronic lung problems, pneumonia can quickly become life-threatening
Home Symptom Management
Over-the-counter medications and other at-home treatments can help you feel better and manage the symptoms of pneumonia, including:
- Pain relievers and fever reducers
- Cough suppressants
- Breathing treatments and exercises
- Using a humidifier
- Drinking plenty of fluids
The best way to prevent pneumonia is to vaccinate against bacteria and viruses that commonly cause it. Additionally, there are precautions to help reduce the risk of pneumonia.
Two types of vaccines prevent pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria. These vaccines will not protect against all kinds of pneumonia, but if contracted, it is less likely to be severe.
Pneumococcal vaccines – Pneumovax 23 and Prevnar 13 protect against pneumonia bacteria. They are each recommended for specific age groups or those with increased risk for pneumonia.
Vaccinations against viruses – Certain viruses can lead to pneumonia, so getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu can help reduce your risk of getting pneumonia.
Healthy Habits to Reduce the Risk of Pneumonia
Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or handling food and after using the restroom. If soap isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get enough rest.
Get treated for any other infections or health conditions you may have. These conditions could weaken your immune system, increasing your chance of pneumonia.
Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke, as it changes the lungs and makes you more susceptible.
With so many causes and varying symptoms, pneumonia can feel confusing. It can be worrying to wonder if your symptoms mean something more serious is happening. A high fever, bloody or unusually colored mucus, chest pain, and shortness of breath are symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
Don’t hesitate to get medical attention when your body tells you something is wrong.
Nancy J. Schaaf, a retired RN, worked as a school nurse, a nurse supervisor at a men’s prison, and a health educator. She earned her BSN at Edinboro University. She is a freelance writer whose health articles appear in magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. She can be reached at email@example.com.