Pneumonia is a lung infection in which the air sacs in both or one of the lungs are inflamed, leading to difficulty breathing and other symptoms including a cough, fever, and chills. There is a wide spectrum of severity of pneumonia cases — symptoms can range from mild to much more critical. Infants, young children, adults over 65, and people with weakened immune systems are among the most vulnerable to complications.
Read on for a closer look at symptoms, causes, and treatment options.
What is pneumonia?
There are several types of pneumonia, categorized by cause. The three main types are bacterial pneumonia, viral pneumonia, and mycoplasma pneumonia.
Bacterial pneumonia is the most common — and often the most serious — type of pneumonia. It may be caused by various bacteria, most commonly Streptococcus pneumoniae. It typically develops when the body has been weakened by illness, age, or impaired immune system functioning, which allows the bacteria to enter your lungs.
The following factors can increase a person’s risk for bacterial pneumonia:
Heavy alcohol use
Having an existing respiratory disease or viral infection
Having an impaired immune system
Viral pneumonia accounts for about a third of all pneumonia cases. It may be caused by various viruses, including the flu.
This less common form of pneumonia — also referred to as atypical pneumonia or walking pneumonia — is caused by the Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacterium. Symptoms are typically mild.
Symptoms of pneumonia
Symptoms vary by pneumonia type. Bacterial pneumonia is typically the most severe and requires medical care more frequently than viral pneumonia. Common symptoms may include:
Fever, in some cases extremely high
Rapidly increased breathing and heart rate
Bluish lips or nail beds due to low oxygen in the blood
These symptoms may develop gradually or suddenly.
Viral pneumonia symptoms typically develop over the course of several days. Initial symptoms often resemble those of the flu, including:
These symptoms often intensify within several days. Later symptoms may include:
More frequent or intense coughing
Shortness of breath
More severe muscle pain
If you suspect that you or your child may have pneumonia, it’s important to seek medical care right away rather than waiting for symptoms to become more noticeable. If you are in one of the more vulnerable groups — over 65 or immunocompromised, for example — seeking medical attention is even more critical due to the possibility of complications.
A doctor may be able to diagnose pneumonia based on your health history and a physical exam. The diagnosis process can also include one or more of the following tests:
A chest X-ray, which shows the severity of inflammation in the lungs
Blood tests, which can confirm the infection and identify the underlying cause
A sputum culture, or a mucus sample, which also helps identify the cause of the infection
A pulse oximetry, which measures how much oxygen is in your blood
A chest CT scan, which shows a better view of the lungs and can identify potential complications. This is most commonly used for individuals who may be more vulnerable to complications.
A bronchoscopy, a procedure that offers a view into the airways of the lungs. It is often reserved for more severe or treatment-resistant cases.
Pneumonia treatment can help end the infection and prevent related health complications. The specific course of treatment your doctor recommends will depend on which type of pneumonia you have, the severity of your symptoms, and your personal health history.
Treatment for bacterial pneumonia
Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. These medications cure bacteria-caused infections by either killing the bacteria or keeping the bacteria from growing.
The most effective antibiotic to treat bacterial pneumonia depends on your age and health history. These are some of the most commonly prescribed:
Amoxicillin and clavulanate (Augmentin®)
If you are prescribed an antibiotic, it’s important to take it for the full duration. Though you may feel better within a few days of treatment, stopping the medication prematurely can cause the infection to return.
Treatment for viral pneumonia
If your pneumonia was caused by a virus, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), zanamivir (Relenza®), or peramivir (Rapivab®). These medications help your body fight off the virus, reducing symptoms and shortening the duration of the infection.
Not all cases of viral pneumonia require antiviral treatment, however, and symptoms can often be managed by:
Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) to control a fever
Consuming an adequate amount of fluids to loosen phlegm
Drinking warm beverages and using a humidifier to help open the airways in your lungs
In addition, allow your body to get as much rest as possible and avoid any form of cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke.
Always consult your doctor before taking cough medicines to treat pneumonia symptoms, as coughing helps your body clear the infection. If your cough is interfering with your sleep, your doctor can recommend appropriate ways to manage it.
More severe cases of pneumonia, especially bacterial pneumonia, may require hospitalization. If you are hospitalized for pneumonia, you may receive oxygen therapy or intravenous medications, including antibiotics. Your treatment may also include breathing exercises that can loosen the fluids in your lungs.
Hospitalization is most common for:
Infants and young children
Adults over 65
Individuals who are immunocompromised
Individuals with heart conditions or respiratory conditions.
Staying on track with immunizations is one of the most impactful steps you can take to prevent pneumonia. Since the flu is a common cause of viral pneumonia, getting your annual flu shot can also protect your lungs from infection.
The pneumococcal vaccine offers protection against a common type of bacterial pneumonia. This vaccine is especially important for children under the age of five, adults ages 65 and older, and people with certain health conditions that increase the risk of pneumonia complications such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Check with your doctor about which vaccines you need.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.