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Infants, adults over 65 years old, people who smoke, or those with an existing lung or chronic health condition are more at risk of pneumonia and life-threatening complications.
Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can all cause pneumonia, which spreads through coughing, sneezing, or close contact with people who have the infection.
Pneumonia can happen to anyone of any age, but the illness causes more risks for certain groups than for others.
The following factors can also make pneumonia more severe or life-threatening:
People with an existing lung condition may be at a higher risk of getting pneumonia.
Children who are younger than 2 years old are more at risk of pneumonia because their immune systems have not developed fully.
According to the American Thoracic Society, pneumonia is the leading reason for children in the United States to be in a hospital.
Adults over 65 years old are also more at risk due to a decline of the immune system as people age. This makes it harder for the body to fight off infections.
Existing medical conditions
People may have a higher risk of getting pneumonia, or more serious cases of pneumonia, in the following circumstances:
- They have an existing lung condition, such as COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or bronchiectasis.
- They are in intensive care and using a ventilator to assist with breathing.
- They have a chronic health condition, such as heart disease, sickle cell disease, or diabetes.
- They are having difficulty coughing or swallowing, often due to a neurological disease that causes food or saliva to enter the lungs and become infected.
- They have recently had a cold or flu.
- They have a weakened immune system due to HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy, organ, blood, or marrow transplant, or long-term use of steroids.
Smoking and excessive use of alcohol or drugs can increase the risk of getting pneumonia or more life-threatening cases of pneumonia.
If people have regular exposure to toxic chemicals, pollutants, or secondhand smoke, they may be more at risk of pneumonia, including more life-threatening cases.
Pneumonia can sometimes cause severe complications, including:
- bacteremia, when bacteria enters the bloodstream
- sepsis and septic shock
- kidney failure
- respiratory failure
When to see a doctor
People should speak to a doctor immediately if they have difficulty breathing, chest pains, or a high fever.
Symptoms of pneumonia can include:
- high fever and sweating
- shaking chills
- feeling short of breath with everyday activities
- coughing that produces green, yellow, or sometimes bloody phlegm
- shallow or rapid breathing
- chest pain when breathing or coughing
- symptoms that do not improve or worsen
- feeling worse after a cold or flu
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- loss of appetite
If people notice the above symptoms, they should see their doctor. People should see a doctor immediately if they have:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- blueness in the lips or fingernails
- cough with phlegm that is not improving
- high fever
Anybody who is at higher risk of pneumonia should see a doctor immediately if they notice any signs of pneumonia. This applies to infants, people over 65 years old, and anyone with a chronic health condition or weakened immune system.
To diagnose pneumonia, a doctor will take a medical history and carry out a physical examination. They will use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs for sounds of pneumonia when a person inhales. They may also take request a chest X-ray and blood test.
If bacteria are the cause of pneumonia, people can take oral antibiotics. Many people respond well to treatment at home and recover quickly. If people notice their symptoms are getting worse, they should see their doctor immediately.
People can treat viral pneumonia with antiviral medicines and will usually get better in 1 to 3 weeks.
People with more severe symptoms, existing health conditions, or who fall into a higher risk category, may have to stay in the hospital.
Recovery rates will vary depending on how healthy a person is generally, their age, and any lifestyle factors. Some people with pneumonia can recover in a few weeks, while for others it can take 6 to 8 weeks to return to normal.
A person can wash their hands regularly to help prevent the spread of infections.
People who might be at a higher risk of getting pneumonia or complications from the infection can get a vaccine to lessen the risk.
There are two types of pneumococcal vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that certain groups of people receive the following vaccines :
- Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine: For adults over 65 years old, children 2 years old or younger, and anyone with a chronic medical condition.
- Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine: For adults over 65 years old, anyone over 2 years of age with a chronic medical condition, and adults over 19 years old who smoke cigarettes.
Other vaccines that can help prevent getting pneumonia include:
- Flu vaccine: Having the flu can increase the chance of getting pneumonia. A flu vaccine can help to protect people from getting both flu and pneumonia.
- Hib vaccine: A type of bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) can cause pneumonia, as well as meningitis. Children under 5 years old and younger can have the Hib vaccine to help protect them from these infections.
There are also simple steps and lifestyle adjustments that people can make to help prevent pneumonia.
People can wash their hands regularly, particularly during cold and flu season, to help prevent the spread of infections. They can use soap and hot water or antibacterial hand gels to kill germs, especially before eating or touching the face and mouth.
A healthy immune system is essential to allow people to better fight off infections. People can keep their immune system strong by eating a healthful diet, getting plenty of rest, and exercising regularly.
If someone smokes cigarettes, then quitting smoking can help reduce the risk of pneumonia infections and their severity. Smoking damages the lungs and reduces the body’s ability to fight off infections.
People who are in good health and who get pneumonia respond well to treatment and can recover in a few weeks.
If people fall into one of the following categories, they may be at higher risk of more severe pneumonia and possible complications:
- children under 2 years old
- adults over 65 years old
- anyone with an existing lung condition or health condition, such as heart disease
- people with a weakened immune system
- people in intensive care or using a ventilator for breathing
- people who smoke
If someone thinks they have symptoms of pneumonia, they should see their doctor immediately, especially if they are in a more at-risk group.
Vaccines to help prevent pneumonia can lower the risk of the infection. Keeping the immune system strong with a healthy lifestyle and by quitting smoking can also reduce the risk of getting pneumonia, and it being a more severe case.
Is pneumonia contagious?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissue that can make it difficult to breathe due to inflammation, fluid, and pus. In severe cases, it can be fatal. This MNT Knowledge Center article explains whether pneumonia is a condition that can spread to others and how to prevent it.
What does green, yellow, or brown phlegm mean?
Phlegm comes in many colors and can be an important indicator of what is happening when someone produces it from their lungs or respiratory tract. Learn here about the different types of phlegm, plus what their consistencies tell you, some home treatments, and when phlegm can indicate a serious problem in the body.
What to know about bacterial pneumonia
Bacterial pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs as a result of bacteria. People who are in hospital sometimes acquire it. People with a weakened immune system have a higher risk. Other causes of pneumonia include viruses and fungi. Find out more about the symptoms, treatment, and outlook.
The symptoms of walking pneumonia in children
In this MNT Knowledge Center article, we look at walking pneumonia in children, what causes it, how it is diagnosed, the symptoms, and how it is treated and prevented. While it is a mild form of the disease, it is important to know how to stop it in its tracks to avoid any serious complications.
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