What you need to know about pneumonia before the worst of winter hits

As the nation prepares for the height of the flu season, it’s important for not only parents, but all people to understand signs which could indicate there’s something more serious than a common cold taking place. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, pneumonia accounted for 2,567 of 2,719 deaths registered as a result of influenza and pneumonia in 2012 – equalling to 1.7 per cent of all deaths in Australia that year.

So, while it may seem like you simply have a case of the common cold or flu, here is everything you need to know about pneumonia including signs, treatment and the different types of infection.

What is pneumonia?

In simplest terms, pneumonia is an infection of the lungs where they become inflamed and the alveoli (small air sacs) inside the lungs fill with fluid.

Who is most affected by pneumonia?

Pneumonia can occur in any person, though according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the leading cause of death in children under five years due to infection.

Others at high risk of pneumonia are:

  • People over 65 years of age
  • People who smoke tobacco or drink large amounts of alcohol regularly
  • People who have other conditions including asthma or any illness that may affect the kidneys, liver or heart
  • People who have a weakened immune system, for example due to cancer
  • People who have recently had a severe cold or flu infection
  • People who have recently been hospitalised.

What are the causes?

There are many causes of pneumonia, including germs, though the most common are bacteria and viruses found in the air. More often than not, our bodies prevent these germs from infecting our lungs, yet sometimes they can overpower the immune system.

As there are four main types of pneumonia, the infection is classified depending on the types of germs that have caused it, along with where the infection began.

 What are the types of pneumonia?

The four types of pneumonia are:

  • Community-acquired pneumonia – This is the most common type of pneumonia as it can occur anywhere, including hospitals. Potential causes of the infection include:
    Bacteria, for example Streptococcus pneumoniae. Community-acquired pneumonia can typically occur on its own or during recovery of a cold or flu.
    Bacteria-like organisms, for example Mycoplasma pneumoniae, can often produce milder symptoms in community-acquired pneumonia than other types.
    Fungi, sometimes found in soil, can also be causes of community-acquired pneumonia, particularly for those with chronic health problems or weakened immune systems.
    Viruses, similar to those which cause colds or the flu, can lead to pneumonia. While viral pneumonia is usually mild, there are some cases where it can become severe depending on the person affected.
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia – It is not uncommon for some people to catch pneumonia during a hospital stay for different reasons. Hospital-acquired pneumonia is particularly dangerous as the bacteria causing the pneumonia may become more resistant to antibiotics.
  • Healthcare-acquired pneumonia – This type of pneumonia is a bacterial infection affecting people residing in long-term care facilities, or those who receive care in outpatient clinics. Healthcare-acquired pneumonia is much like hospital-acquired pneumonia as it can be caused by bacteria potentially resistant to antibiotics.
  • Aspiration pneumonia – There are quite a few causes of aspiration pneumonia, including inhaling food, drink, vomit or saliva into your lungs. As well as this, it can occur by having something disturb your normal gag reflex, for example, excessive use of drugs or alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of pneumonia are very similar to that of a cold or flu including:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Phlegm coughed up from lungs
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Confusion
  • Shaking chills
  • Fast breathing or shortness of breath.

As pneumonia is especially dangerous for children, it is important to look for the below symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Irritability
  • Not eating properly.

For toddlers, they may experience chest pains and vomit after coughing.

How can pneumonia be diagnosed?

If you suspect you may have pneumonia, the first step is to consult with a doctor as there are a few methods to diagnose the infection if necessary. These include:

  • Physical exam – The doctor will simply listen to your lungs with a stethoscope and look for signs where your lungs may make rumbling sounds, or you may be wheezing.
  • Chest X-ray – If needed, a doctor will refer you for a chest X-ray to confirm if you have pneumonia.
  • Other tests – Depending on the severity, there are other tests available such as:
    – Blood tests, to check your blood cell count and potentially determine a germ which may be in your blood.
    – CT scan, this is simply to get a better look at your lungs.
    – Bronchoscopy, to look into your lungs’ airways for issues including antibiotics not working correctly.

What treatment is available?

Whilst community-acquired pneumonia can usually be treated at home with medication, severe cases of pneumonia may require treatments such as:

  • Antibiotics – Before a doctor can prescribe antibiotics, they need to identify the type of bacteria causing the pneumonia and decide on the most suitable antibiotic for treatment.
  • Cough medicine – For those with a severe cough, medicines can be used to calm your cough to assist in resting. As coughing loosens and moves fluid from your lungs, it is important to look at low dose cough medicines to not eliminate the cough completely.
  • Pain relievers or fever reducers – Over the counter medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen can often be used to reduce discomfort.

How can pneumonia be prevented?

General suggestions to avoid pneumonia include:

  • Regularly washing your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap.
  • Covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (and cleaning hands afterwards, if possible).
  • Refraining from regularly drinking alcohol and smoking.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet.
  • Regular exercise (five days a week if possible).
  • Staying away from others with pneumonia to reduce the risk of infection.