Pneumonia – colds and flu increase risk
By: Shelley Breyen, M.D.
Pneumonia is a general term that refers to an infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs. The infection can range in seriousness from mild to life-threatening and is most often caused by bacteria or viruses. The disease may affect just one lung (single pneumonia) or both (double pneumonia).
Pneumonia is caused by breathing germs into the lungs. This can occur when the disease is airborne, or when people touch contaminated objects and then tough their eyes or nose.People may be more susceptible to the disease after having a cold or the flu because these diseases make it more difficult for your lungs to fight the pneumonia infection. Chronic illnesses like asthma, heart disease, cancer or diabetes also increases a person’s risk for pneumonia.
Pneumonia is caused most often when we breathe bacteria and viruses in the air into our lungs. It can also occur as a complication of another viral illness such as measles or chickenpox. One type of pneumonia, called aspiration pneumonia, is caused when a person is unable to swallow correctly (due to a medical condition such as a seizure or stroke) and breathes in food, liquid, mucus or vomit into the lungs.
Bacterial pneumonia usually comes on quickly with symptoms that include:
• Coughing with rusty or green-colored mucus
• Shortness of breath
• Chills, shaking and teeth-chattering
• Chest pain, especially after coughing or taking a breath
• Increased heart rate
• Fatigue and weakness
• Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
• Confusion (especially in older people)
Not everyone with pneumonia experiences all of the symptoms. Symptoms of pneumonia caused by a virus are similar to bacterial pneumonia, but they come on more slowly and are usually not as severe.
Pneumonia caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics; pneumonia caused by a virus is not. In addition, there are a number of home treatments that can aid in recovery. Get plenty of rest and sleep. Drink fluids, especially water. Consider an over-the-counter medication, such as acetaminophen, to help reduce fever. Do not smoke.
A pneumococcal vaccine is available and should be considered by certain at-risk populations. These include people 65 or older and people with heart or lung problems. The vaccine may not completely prevent pneumonia, but it will lessen the severity of the disease.
Other ways to prevent or decrease risk of pneumonia include staying away from people who have the flu, colds, measles or chickenpox. Wash your hands often, and don’t touch your eyes or nose with your fingers. Use a handkerchief or tissue.
If you have symptoms of pneumonia, you should see your doctor to set up a treatment plan. The faster you begin treatment, the better. This is especially important for young children, people over the age of 65 and those with chronic health problems such as asthma. Usually people begin to feel better three to six days after treatment begins, but a complete recover may take a few weeks for most people and even longer for people with underlying conditions.
Pneumonia can be mild and successfully treated at home, or it can be severe, requiring hospitalization. Serious symptoms requiring emergency medical treatment include chest pain that is crushing or squeezing and is increasing in intensity, severe trouble breathing, coughing up large amounts of blood and fainting or feeling faint upon sitting up or standing.
Winter means cold and flu season, and unfortunately that brings with it an increase in risk for pneumonia. Decrease your risk by developing habits that promote infection control. Stay away from those who are ill with the flu and colds. If you do develop symptoms of pneumonia, see your doctor right away so treatment can begin sooner rather than later.
Dr. Breyen is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.