Understanding Pneumonia

NOVEMBER 30, 2016

Pneumonia is a serious illness. Each year, one million Americans are hospitalized with pneumonia and more than 50,000 lives are lost to the illness.  The good news is that pneumonia can often be prevented and almost always be treated. Understanding the causes, risk factors and treatment of pneumonia is important for everyone.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation in one or both lungs’ air sacs. Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Coughing (sometimes a “productive” cough, meaning the patient coughs up phlegm)
  • Chest pain when inhaling or coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

In older adults, symptoms may also include lower-than-normal body temperature and confusion.

“Children under the age of two and adults 65 and older are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia and should see a doctor right away if experiencing any of these symptoms,” says Dr. John Thurmond, III, a doctor of Internal Medicine.  “For everyone else, see your doctor if you are experiencing difficulty breathing, have a temperature of 102 degrees or higher or are coughing for an extended period of time.”

What Causes Pneumonia?

There are two broad categories of pneumonia: community-acquired and health care-acquired. Community-acquired is the most common form, and it simply means the patient has been exposed to a bacteria, virus or fungus in the natural environment that subsequently caused the pneumonia. The most common form of bacterial pneumonia is a type that may occur following the common cold or flu. The viruses that cause cold and flu can also cause pneumonia themselves.

“Since pneumonia can often be preceded by the cold or flu, people can be led to believe they just have an upper-respiratory infection that is sticking around longer than usual,” says Dr. Thurmond. “It’s really important that if you feel yourself getting worse, not better, to see your doctor right away.”

Health care-acquired pneumonia refers to an infection that results from a stay in a hospital or a long-term care facility. The pneumonia-causing bacteria in these situations may be resistant to antibiotics and the patient is already more vulnerable, due to the illness or injury that necessitated hospitalization in the first place.

There are several risk factors for pneumonia:

  • Age: people younger than 2 and 65 and older are at greater risk
  • Hospitalization
  • Smoking
  • Chronic disease; illnesses such as COPD and asthma heighten the risk of pneumonia
  • Compromised immune system; people with HIV/AIDS or who are receiving chemotherapy are at greater risk

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your physician suspects you may have pneumonia, he or she will likely order a blood test and chest x-ray to help make a diagnosis. Your doctor will also measure the oxygen level in your blood, utilizing a sensor on your index finger.

If pneumonia is present, common treatments include antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing the infection, cough medicine and a pain reliever/fever reducer, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If the pneumonia is severe and you’re having a lot of difficulty breathing, you may be hospitalized so you can receive regular breathing treatments and IV antibiotics and fluids.

“In addition to taking the medicine prescribed by your physician, getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids are some of the most effective steps you can take to recover from pneumonia,” says Dr. Lynne Tilkin, a primary care physician.


Pneumonia is not always completely preventable, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of the illness:

  • Wash your hands: Since pneumonia can be caused by bacteria and viruses, washing your hands with soap and water will do a lot to reduce your risk of illness.
  • Get a flu shot: The flu is a top cause of pneumonia. Getting a flu shot reduces your odds of getting the flu by more than 60 percent. Flu season runs from October to April each year; Texas Health Care physicians recommend getting a flu shot in the first half of September.
  • Don’t smoke: If you smoke, you should quit. In addition to causing heart disease, cancer and a variety of other health ailments, smoking weakens the lungs and makes you more susceptible to pneumonia.  Smoking also makes recovery from pneumonia more difficult.
  • Get immunized: Children under the age of five and adults 65 and older should receive the pneumococcal vaccine. For adults, it’s one shot, followed by one more at least a year later.

Take Pneumonia Seriously

Understanding the causes or pneumonia and the ways to reduce risk is important for everyone, especially seniors and parents of young children. If you or a family member develop the symptoms of pneumonia, see a doctor right away. “Pneumonia isn’t something you mess around with,” says Dr. Tilkin. “It’s an illness that requires medical attention and must be taken very seriously.”

This article contains information sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Mayo Clinic

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