Pneumonia has many causes -- viruses, bacteria (most commonly Streptococcus pneumoniae), mycoplasmas (disease-spreading bacteria that are smaller than, and lack the cell walls of, typical bacteria), fungi, and even certain chemicals. According to the American Lung Association, viruses are to blame for half of all pneumonia cases.
Pneumonia Infection Information
Pneumonia is an infection that settles in one or both lungs. The lung tissue becomes inflamed and the microscopic air sacs fill with fluid. The combination of swelling and fluid can hinder the movement of oxygen into the bloodstream. Symptoms vary from mild to serious depending on the type of pneumonia contracted, but basic symptoms include an intense cough, fever, chills, and fatigue. Some types of pneumonia mimic a cold and include muscle aches, sore throat, and a headache. In more serious cases, pneumonia can cause chest pain, a racing pulse, and breathlessness.
As many as 70 percent of people have pneumonia-causing bacteria in their throats at any given time, but their healthy immune systems fight off the bacteria before they reach the lungs. However, when a person's immune system is not at its best, such as when combating a cold or the flu, the body may not be able to prevent a pneumonia-causing invader from reaching the lungs.
Viruses usually cause milder forms of pneumonia than bacteria do. A viral pneumonia will make you feel icky, but it should clear up on its own within a week or two. However, because pneumonia affects your lungs, no case should be ignored. The best course of action is the same as for the flu -- get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and take steamy showers to loosen up the gunk in your lungs. You can also manage your fever, aches and pains, and cough with over-the-counter medicines. Bacterial pneumonias can be much more serious and can lead to long-term complications, but fortunately, they usually can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
No matter the cause, pneumonia is a serious infection, even with prompt medical treatment. According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, pneumonia killed almost 65,000 people in the United States in 2002 (the last year for which statistics were available).
Who's at Risk for Pneumonia?
People with weaker-than-normal immune systems are at greatest risk of contracting pneumonia. This includes children younger than 2 years; those 65 and older; and people with chronic health conditions, such as lung or heart disease, sickle cell anemia, or diabetes. People fighting cancer or AIDS are also at high risk. Hospitalized people, especially those in an intensive care unit and/or on a ventilator, and those who live in nursing homes are at a much greater risk for developing hospital-acquired pneumonia. Smokers are also more susceptible to developing pneumonia.
Defensive Measures Against Pneumonia
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent pneumonia. That includes getting a flu vaccination each year, because the flu is a common precursor to pneumonia, as well as not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of exercise and rest. These actions will boost your immune system and keep your cold or flu from turning into something much more serious.
There is a vaccine available that fights off the bacteria-based pneumococcal pneumonia. This vaccine is effective in 80 percent of healthy adults and certainly helps high-risk groups lower their odds of developing pneumonia. If you are at high risk, or if you have a baby younger than 23 months, you should speak with your physician about this vaccine and the new pneumococcal vaccine for young children.
Sinusitis usually stems from a stuffy nose and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Go to the next page to learn more about sinusitis.
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