Pneumonia is a lung infection that can make you very sick. You may cough, run a fever, and have a hard time breathing. For most people, pneumonia can be treated at home. It often clears up in 2 to 3 weeks. But older adults, babies, and people with other diseases can become very ill. They may need to be in the hospital.
You can get pneumonia in your daily life, such as at school or work. This is called community-associated pneumonia. You can also get it when you are in a hospital or nursing home. This is called healthcare-associated pneumonia. It may be more severe because you already are ill. This topic focuses on pneumonia you get in your daily life.
What causes pneumonia?Germs called bacteria or viruses usually cause pneumonia.
Pneumonia usually starts when you breathe the germs into your lungs. You may be more likely to get the disease after having a cold or the flu. These illnesses make it hard for your lungs to fight infection, so it is easier to get pneumonia. Having a long-term, or chronic, disease like asthma, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes also makes you more likely to get pneumonia.
What are the symptoms?Symptoms of pneumonia caused by bacteria usually come on quickly. They may include:
- Cough. You will likely cough up mucus (sputum) from your lungs. Mucus may be rusty or green or tinged with blood.
- Fast breathing and feeling short of breath.
- Shaking and "teeth-chattering" chills. You may have this only one time or many times.
- Chest pain that often feels worse when you cough or breathe in.
- Fast heartbeat.
- Feeling very tired or feeling very weak.
- Nausea and vomiting.
Older adults may have different, fewer, or milder symptoms. They may not have a fever. Or they may have a cough but not bring up mucus. The main sign of pneumonia in older adults may be a change in how well they think. Confusion or delirium is common. Or, if they already have a lung disease, that disease may get worse.
Symptoms caused by viruses are the same as those caused by bacteria. But they may come on slowly and often are not as obvious or as bad.
How is pneumonia diagnosed?Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam. He or she may order a chest X-ray and a blood test. This is usually enough for your doctor to know if you have pneumonia. You may need more tests if you have bad symptoms, are an older adult, or have other health problems. In general, the sicker you are, the more tests you will have.
Your doctor may also test mucus from your lungs to find out if bacteria are causing your pneumonia. Finding out what is causing your pneumonia can help your doctor choose the best treatment for you.
How is it treated?If pneumonia is caused by bacteria, your doctor will give you antibiotics. These almost always cure pneumonia caused by bacteria. Be sure to take the antibiotics exactly as instructed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
Pneumonia can make you feel very sick. But after you take antibiotics, you should start to feel much better. Call your doctor if you do not start to feel better after 2 to 3 days of antibiotics. Call your doctor right away if you feel worse.
There are things you can do to feel better during your treatment. Get plenty of rest and sleep, and drink lots of liquids. Do not smoke. If your cough keeps you awake at night, talk to your doctor about using cough medicine.
You may need to go to the hospital if you have bad symptoms, a weak immune system, or another serious illness.
Pneumonia caused by a virus usually is not treated with antibiotics. Sometimes, antibiotics may be used to prevent complications. But home treatment, such as rest and taking care of your cough, usually is all that is done.
How can you prevent pneumonia?If you are 65 or older, you smoke, or you have a heart or lung problem, you may want to get a pneumococcal vaccine. It may not keep you from getting pneumonia. But if you do get pneumonia, you probably won't be as sick.
You can also lower your chances of getting pneumonia by staying away from people who have the flu, colds, measles, or chickenpox. You may get pneumonia after you have one of these illnesses. Wash your hands often. This helps prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that may cause pneumonia.
Although a long list of germs and inhaled irritants can cause pneumonia, vaccination lowers your risk of two leading offenders.
- Seasonal flu shot. The influenza virus can be a direct cause of viral pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is also a common complication of the flu. A yearly flu shot provides significant protection either way.
- Pneumonia vaccine. Doctors recommend a one-time vaccine against Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (pneumococcus) for everyone older than age 65, as well as for people of any age residing in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. In addition, the vaccine is recommended for anyone at high risk of pneumococcal pneumonia. The high-risk categories are smokers; anyone with heart disease, lung disease or other chronic conditions; and anyone with reduced immune defenses due to HIV or long-term therapy with immunosuppressant drugs, such as corticosteroids or medications to prevent transplant rejection.
- Childhood vaccines. Children should receive the seasonal flu vaccine every year. Doctors also recommend a pneumonia vaccine — pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, as opposed to pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, which is for adults — for all children younger than age 2 and for children ages 2 to 5 years who are at particular risk of pneumococcal disease, including those with immune system deficiency, cancer, cardiovascular disease or sickle cell anemia. Children who attend a group day care center should also get the vaccine.
Ordinary respiratory infections sometimes lead to pneumonia, so do what you can to protect yourself from all kinds of germs. Here are the basics:
- Wash your hands. Your hands are in almost constant contact with germs that can cause pneumonia. These germs enter your body when you touch your eyes or rub the inside of your nose. Washing your hands often and thoroughly can help reduce your risk. When washing isn't possible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Don't smoke. Smoking damages your lungs' natural defenses against respiratory infections.
- Stay rested and fit. Proper rest and moderate exercise can help keep your immune system strong.
- Eat a healthy diet. Include plenty of fat-free dairy products, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Set an example. Stay home when you're sick. When you're in public with a cold, catch your coughs and sneezes in the inner crook of your elbow.