Pneumonia Remains a Leading Cause of Death, and Here are the Signs
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can turn serious and even deadly. Anyone can get pneumonia, but children and older adults are at the greatest risk. According to the World Health Organization, "Pneumonia accounts for 14% of all deaths of children under 5 years old, killing 740 180 children in 2019." Pneumonia can become a serious condition and one of the top reasons children are hospitalized, according to the American Thoracic Society. Adults struggle with pneumonia too, however. The ATS says, "For US adults, pneumonia is the most common cause of hospital admissions other than women giving birth. About 1 million adults in the US seek care in a hospital due to pneumonia every year, and 50,000 die from this disease."
Experiencing a lingering non stop cough and trouble breathing is terrifying, but there are ways to help lower the chances of pneumonia. "Pneumonia is scary but there is a lot that we can do to decrease our risk!," Huawei Dong, M.D., pulmonology and critical care medicine professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine and pulmonologist at UCI Health states. "Any chemical that we inhale into our lungs can irritate them and weaken our natural defenses against germs. This is especially true for smoking and vaping."
Making smart and healthy lifestyle choices can lower the risk of pneumonia, but also getting vaccinated. Dr. Dong emphasizes, "Vaccines can also dramatically decrease the severity of certain pneumonias. Most children and adults should receive the yearly influenza vaccine. If you're over the age of 65 or have certain medical conditions, you may also qualify to receive a vaccine against bacterial pneumonia. Ask your doctor!" Read on to learn more about pneumonia, why children and older adults are at risk and signs that indicate you have the condition. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice.
What to Know About Pneumonia
Fady Youssef, M.D., a board-certified pulmonologist, internist and critical care specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center in Long Beach, CA tells us, "Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. Infections of the lungs are serious and require medical attention. It is important to keep in mind that bronchitis and pneumonia may share similar features such as cough and shortness of breath, but they are two distinct yet closely related entities. Bronchitis is inflammation of the airways or wind pipes and can be caused by an infection among other things. Differentiating between the two may require medical attention."
Dr. Dong says, "Pneumonia is an infection that affects our lungs. It can be caused by a variety of germs such as bacteria, virus, or fungus. We usually develop pneumonia by inhaling these germs through the air we breathe. The severity of the infection can range from mild to life-threatening depending on the type of infection and the health of the individual."
Why Pneumonia is a Leading Cause of Death
Dr. Youssef says, "While all organs are vital, the heart and the lungs are especially vital. Infections or ailments that involve either organ have the potential to be life threatening." Dr. Dong explains, "Pneumonia has been among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. However since the pandemic, death due to COVID-19 (which is a viral pneumonia) has risen to number 3, only behind heart disease and cancer. Pneumonia is so fatal because it is not only common but can also cause serious complications such as respiratory failure and sepsis."
PBS reports, "Time is often of the essence with pneumonia: Severe pneumonia can kill victims within hours as they literally drown in the fluids flooding their lungs. In Honduras, pneumonia treatment is part of a national, integrated community child care program that trains community volunteers to monitor children's growth, provide health education, and treat pneumonia and diarrhea."
Why Older Adults and Children are at a Higher Risk
Dr. Youssef explains, "We do know that the immune system is not fully developed until the first 6-7 years of life. We also know that as we age our immune systems weaken as we age. By that token, young children and adults over 65 are more susceptible."
Dr. Dong tells us, 'Children's young immune systems still lack many of the important antibodies to help us fight against infections. As children grow and continue to be exposed to a variety of germs in their environment as well as vaccines, their immune system will become stronger. As we age into the golden years however, our body's natural immunity begins to fade and become less protective. Many seniors also begin developing other health issues that puts them at higher risk of getting pneumonia."
Why Pneumonia Can Take a Long Time to Recover From
Dr. Dong states, "During the infection process, lungs get filled with germs, fluid and debris from damaged cells. Even if the germs are killed, it can take our body a long time to clean up this debris. Some with mild cases can feel better in a few days, while it takes weeks or longer in others. Occasionally, pneumonia can even cause permanent lung damage in the most severe cases."
Dr. Youssef says, "Most patients will start feeling better in 5 – 7 days and close to normal within 2 – 4 weeks. In severe cases it may take longer. Depending on how extensive the infection was, the lung may take up to 4 – 6 weeks to heal fully on a chest X-Ray. There is a significant degree of deconditioning that sets in when one deals with such a significant infection."
Pneumonia Can Be Antibiotic Resistant
There's a growing problem of antibiotic resistance and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says in 2019, "there were about 30,300 cases of invasive pneumococcal disease. Available data show that pneumococcal bacteria are resistant to one or more antibiotics in more than 30% of cases."
Dr. Youssef explains, "If you are treated with oral antibiotics and your symptoms do not start to improve within 2-3 days or worsen you need to seek medical attention. Alternate oral antibiotics or intravenous antibiotics may be needed."
Dr. Dong says, "If you are not improving despite taking antibiotics, it is important to see your doctor. You may need further testing to determine if a different antibiotic may work better, or if there are other medical reasons for the lack of improvement. Also make sure to finish your entire antibiotic prescription. Early stoppage is a well known cause of more antibiotic resistance."
What You Should NOT Do if you Have Pneumonia
Dr. Dong urges, "Don't ignore your symptoms! If they are lasting longer than expected for a cold or getting worse, you should see a doctor. Pneumonia is diagnosed through scans such as x-ray or CT. Until you are feeling better, also avoid social gatherings to help reduce the spread of germs."
Dr. Youssef advises, "I would recommend rest, oral hydration, using over the counter medications for symptom relief. I would also recommend avoiding first or second hand smoking."
Signs You Have Pneumonia
Dr. Dong explains, "The most common symptoms of pneumonia are similar to a common cold, such as cough, fever and fatigue. In more severe cases, it can also cause shortness of breath, chest pain and even confusion. Dr. Youssef says, "Fever, chills, cough, fatigue and low energy, poor appetite, muscle aches, shortness of breath, chest tightness," are symptoms of pneumonia."
The Mayo Clinic says, "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. Mild signs and symptoms often are similar to those of a cold or flu, but they last longer.
Signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:
Chest pain when you breathe or cough
Confusion or changes in mental awareness (in adults age 65 and older)
Cough, which may produce phlegm
Fever, sweating and shaking chills
Lower than normal body temperature (in adults older than age 65 and people with weak immune systems)
Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
Shortness of breath