Release Date: 3/28/2011
Pneumonia can be deadly, but often is preventable
Dr. Busch, a family practitioner, is a member of St. Anthony's Physician Organization. She practices at Kirkwood Family Medicine, 10296 Big Bend Blvd., 314-543-5943.
A high fever, shaking chills, a debilitating cough, chest tightness – it sounds terrible and feels just as bad. It could be pneumonia, a serious infection of the lower lungs.
Pneumonia strikes millions of people in the United States each year. And, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, pneumonia accounts for more than 50,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. Globally, pneumonia causes more deaths than any other infectious disease.
There are three types of pneumonia. Symptoms vary somewhat depending on what caused the infection. In viral pneumonia, the patients have a dry, hacking cough, fever and chills, with weakness and muscle aches. In bacterial pneumonia, the cough can be painful and full of phlegm (possibly bloody) and the chills can last up to 20 minutes. A third type of pneumonia is called atypical pneumonia and is caused by a number of different microorganisms, for example, mycoplasma and chlamydia. Its symptoms are similar to viral pneumonia.
Most cases of pneumonia are mild, but for some people it can be fatal. Those at greatest risk are infants, the elderly, smokers and people with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, cystic fibrosis and AIDS.
Tests to pinpoint pneumonia include physical exams and chest X-rays, sometimes accompanied by a lab test. The sooner the diagnosis is confirmed, the faster recovery can begin. Most sufferers begin to feel better after a short period; after about two to three weeks, they’re fully recovered. If you develop pneumonia, your chances of a fast recovery are greatest if you are young; if your pneumonia is caught early; if your defenses against disease are working well; if the infection hasn’t spread; and if you are not suffering from other illnesses. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics and bed rest to treat many cases of pneumonia.
Besides antibiotics, some patients are given supportive treatment, including proper diet and oxygen to increase oxygen in the blood when needed. It also is sometimes necessary to prescribe medication to ease chest pain and to provide relief from violent coughing.
Preventing pneumonia clearly is better than treating it. The best preventive measures are following good hygiene practices, including washing your hands frequently, cleaning hard surfaces that are touched often (like doorknobs and countertops), and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into your elbow or sleeve. You also can lower your risk of contracting pneumonia by not smoking and by wearing a mask when cleaning dusty or moldy areas.
Because pneumonia is a common complication of influenza, getting a flu shot every fall also is good pneumonia prevention. There also is a vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia, a bacterial infection that accounts for up to a quarter of all pneumonias. The vaccine is 60 to 80 percent effective and lasts from five to 10 years. Your doctor can help determine if you need the vaccine against bacterial pneumonia.
Since pneumonia often develops after ordinary respiratory infections, it is important that people pay close attention to any symptoms of respiratory trouble that linger more than a few days. Maintaining good health habits, including proper diet and hygiene, getting enough rest and exercising regularly helps increase resistance to all respiratory illnesses – and helps people recover quicker if they do get sick.
For information, please call our Health Access Line at 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 800-554-9550 or visit find a physician online.
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