You may associate pneumonia with the melodrama of a soap opera: prolonged hospital stays, oxygen tents, and family members whispering in bedside huddles. It's true that pneumonia can be serious. But more often pneumonia is an infection that can be treated easily, without a hospital stay.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia (pronounced: noo- mow -nyuh) is an infection of the lungs. When a person has pneumonia, lung tissue can fill with pus and other fluid, which makes it difficult for oxygen in the lung's air sacs to reach the bloodstream. With pneumonia, a person may have difficulty breathing and have a cough and fever. Sometimes a person may have chest or abdominal pain and vomiting, too.
Pneumonia is commonly caused by viruses, such as the influenza virus (flu) and adenovirus . Other viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are common causes of pneumonia in young children and infants. Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause pneumonia, too. People with bacterial pneumonia are usually sicker than those with viral pneumonia, but can be effectively treated with antibiotic medications.
You may have heard the terms "double pneumonia" or "walking pneumonia." Double pneumonia simply means that the infection is in both lungs. It's common for pneumonia to affect both lungs, so don't worry if your doctor says this is what you have - it doesn't mean you're twice as sick.
Walking pneumonia refers to pneumonia that is mild enough that you may not even know you have it. Walking pneumonia, which has also been called atypical pneumonia because it's different from the typical bacterial pneumonia, is common in teens and is often caused by a tiny microorganism known as Mycoplasma pneumoniae . Like the typical bacterial pneumonia, walking pneumonia can also be treated with antibiotics.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
There are many symptoms of pneumonia, and some of them, like a cough or a sore throat, are associated with many other common infections. Often, people get pneumonia after they've had an upper respiratory tract infection like a cold.
Symptoms of pneumonia can include:
- unusually rapid breathing
- difficulty breathing
- chest or abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
The symptoms of pneumonia vary from person to person, and few people get all of them.
When pneumonia is caused by bacteria, the person tends to become sick quickly and develops a high fever and has difficulty breathing. When it's caused by a virus, symptoms generally appear more gradually and may be less severe.
A person's symptoms can help the doctor identify the type of pneumonia. Mycoplasma pneumoniae , for example, often causes headaches and sore throats in addition to the symptoms listed above.
Can I Prevent Pneumonia?
The routine vaccinations that most people receive as kids help prevent certain types of pneumonia and other infections. If you have a chronic illness, such as sickle cell disease, you may have received additional vaccinations and disease-preventing antibiotics to help prevent pneumonia and other infections caused by bacteria. People who have diseases that affect their immune system (like diabetes, HIV infection, or cancer), are 65 or older, or are in other high-risk groups should receive a pneumococcal vaccination.
People with immune system problems may also receive antibiotics to prevent pneumonia that may be caused by organisms they are especially susceptible to. In some cases, antiviral medication may be used to prevent viral pneumonia or to lessen its effects.
Influenza vaccination is also recommended since pneumonia often occurs as a complication of the flu. Because pneumonia is often caused by contagious germs, a good way to prevent pneumonia is to keep your distance from anyone you know who has pneumonia or other respiratory infections. Use separate drinking glasses and eating utensils, wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water, and avoid touching used tissues and paper towels.
You can also stay strong and help avoid some of the illnesses that may lead to pneumonia by eating as healthily as possible, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding smoking.
How Long Does It Last?
The length of time between exposure and feeling sick depends on many factors, particularly the type of pneumonia a person has.
With influenza pneumonia, for example, someone may become sick in as few as 12 hours or as long as 3 days after exposure to the flu virus. But with walking pneumonia, a person may not have symptoms until 2 to 3 weeks after becoming infected.
Most types of pneumonia resolve within a week or two, although a cough may linger for several weeks more. In severe cases, it may take longer to completely recover.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
If you think you may have pneumonia, tell a parent or other adult and be sure you get an appointment with a doctor. Be especially aware of your breathing; if you have chest pain or trouble breathing or if your lips or fingers look blue, you should go to a doctor's office or to a hospital emergency department right away.
How Is Pneumonia Treated?
If a doctor suspects pneumonia, he or she will perform a physical exam and may order a chest X-ray and blood tests. People who have bacterial or atypical pneumonia will probably be given antibiotics to take at home. A doctor will also recommend that a person gets lots of rest and drinks plenty of fluids.
Some people with pneumonia need to be hospitalized to get better - usually babies and young children and people older than 65. However, hospital care may be need for a teen who:
- already has immune system problems
- is dangerously dehydrated or is vomiting a lot and can't keep fluids and medicine down
- has had pneumonia frequently
- has skin that's blue or pale in color, which reflects a lack of oxygen
When pneumonia patients are hospitalized, treatment may include intravenous (IV) antibiotics (antibiotics that are delivered through a needle inserted into a vein) and respiratory therapy (breathing treatments).
Antiviral medications approved for adults and teens can reduce the severity of flu infections if taken in the first 1 to 2 days after symptoms begin. If you have been exposed to influenza and you begin to develop symptoms of pneumonia, call a doctor.
What Can I Do to Help Myself Feel Better?
If your doctor has prescribed medicine, be sure to follow the directions carefully.
You may feel better in a room with a humidifier, which increases the moisture in the air and soothes irritated lungs. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids, especially if you have a fever. If you have a fever, ask the doctor whether you can take over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring it down. But don't take any medicine without checking first with your doctor - a cough suppressant, for example, may not allow your lungs to clear themselves of mucus.
And finally, be sure to rest. This is a good time to sleep, watch TV, read, and lay low. If you treat your body right, it will repair itself and you'll be back to normal in no time.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2006
Originally reviewed by: Stephen Eppes, MD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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