When you think of pneumonia, you probably think of having it as a little kid or hearing about your grandma catching it while in the hospital. It’s true that pneumonia is more common in children and older adults (thanks to their weaker immune systems)-but pneumonia can still affect anyone.
But how can you tell the difference between pneumonia and say, the flu or a really nasty cold? Here’s everything you need to know about spotting pneumonia, treating it, and avoiding it altogether.
What is pneumonia, exactly?
“Pneumonia is an infection in the gas-exchanging units of the lung (called the alveoli),” says Dr Michael Niederman. Translation: the air sacs in your lungs become inflamed or even fill with fluid or pus, which interferes with your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your blood.
“About half the time, it’s due to bacteria,” says Dr Edelman. “The other half the time, it’s due to viruses.” The most common type of pneumonia is caused by the bacteria streptococcus, or the same type of bacteria that causes strep throat. Influenza is also a key virus that can spur pneumonia, and fungi can be a culprit, too.
“Pneumonia develops if the organism overwhelms the patient’s host defenses,” says Dr Niederman. This basically means that a foreign bug takes over your immune system, even if you’re generally healthy. That’s because certain organisms, like those associated with the flu, can be particularly hostile or invade your body in large numbers.
How do you get pneumonia?
Pneumonia can be contracted tons of different ways, from inhalation of fumes to living in a moldy building. Overall, it’s divided into two different categories: community-acquired pneumonia and healthcare-associated pneumonia, says Dr Norman Edelman.
Community-acquired pneumonia can be acquired anywhere, anytime. Bacterial and viral pneumonia are contagious, so you can pick it up from someone’s stray cough or sneeze, by sharing cups, or not washing your hands as often as you should.
Then there is healthcare-associated pneumonia, which is the kind you pick up while staying in the hospital or at a chronic care facility, like a nursing home or rehab center. “We make that distinction because the bugs that cause these two types of pneumonia tend to be different and treated differently,” says Dr Edelman.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
Pneumonia can look a lot like the common cold from the outside. Amongst its most common symptoms are:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain during breathing or coughing
- Increased phlegm that’s green, grey, or yellow in colour
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea
But the common cold will usually have other symptoms that pneumonia won’t, like a sore throat or runny nose,” says Dr Jonathan Puchalski. Those symptoms-along with the cough or fever you might be experiencing-will usually go away pretty quickly.
With pneumonia, on the other hand, they’ll either remain consistent or become more severe. “We all get colds and coughs,” says Dr Edelman. “If it seems like an ordinary cold and there’s a cough associated with it and you’re otherwise not sick, I think you can wait a week before you see your doctor. If it gets worse, see your doctor immediately.”
“Getting worse” could include symptoms like high fevers, bad headaches, and severe chest pain, says Dr Edelman, which could imply a more serious bacterial pneumonia. If that’s the case, you should head to the doctor’s office ASAP.
How is pneumonia treated?
The type of pneumonia you have will determine what kind of treatment you’ll get.
If you have a viral infection...
“If it’s viral, it usually takes care of itself,” says Dr Edelman. Unfortunately, it could take your body up to a month to really get rid of the viral infection, so in the meantime, doctors will often try to control the symptoms you’re experiencing, like a fever, as opposed to the virus itself, says Dr Puchalski.
Leaving it untreated might cause you some discomfort by not controlling the symptoms, but the infection itself will still more than likely go away.
If you have a bacterial infection...
With bacterial pneumonia, prescription treatment becomes super important. For community-acquired pneumonia, your doctor will usually prescribe you an antibiotic, and the infection should be gone in a week to 10 days, says Dr Edelman.
If left untreated, bacterial pneumonia can spread to your heart, brain, or other parts of your body.
If it’s healthcare-associated, it might require some more intensive medication. “If you have healthcare-associated pneumonia, that’s usually a bug that’s resistant to the ordinary drug your doctor might use for community-acquired pneumonia,” says Dr Edelman. “You usually get several antibiotics to try and cover all the possible resistant organisms that could be causing pneumonia.”
If you leave bacterial pneumonia untreated, however, you could be putting yourself at serious risk. “If it’s bacterial, then you worry about it spreading to other parts of the lung or other parts of the body,” says Dr Edelman. “It can go to your heart, it can go to your brain, it can go all kinds of places.”
The worst case scenario? The infection could move out of the lungs and cause sepsis, an intense immune system reaction that can be fatal. In fact, pneumonia is the leading cause of death from infectious diseases, says Dr Niederman. It can also cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition in which fluids get caught in the lungs’ air sacs, ultimately depriving your organs of oxygen.
How to prevent pneumonia
The bottom line? Check in with your doctor as soon start experiencing symptoms of pneumonia, especially if those symptoms start getting worse.
Even better than treatment is prevention, which comes in the form of immunisation, says Dr Niederman. Make sure you get your flu shot every year, and if you’re someone suffering from chronic illness or you’re over the age of 65, ask your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects your body against the streptococcus bacteria.
Overall, just be good to your body. Washing your hands regularly (use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds!), disinfecting your phone and counters, finding time to unwind from the day’s stress, getting plenty of sleep, and eating a healthy diet full of immunity-boosting foods all work toward keeping malicious bugs out of your system.