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Pneumonia is a disease that primarily affects the alveoli, which are the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

A boy lying on a hospital bed with pneumonia

Pneumonia causes the alveoli to fill with fluid and become inflamed, which hinders breathing and can prevent your body’s cells from getting the oxygen they need to function. This is why, in some cases, pneumonia can lead to serious complications and even death.

A viral or bacterial infection is the most common cause of pneumonia, but it can also be caused by other micro-organisms such as fungi, autoimmune disorders and exposure to certain drugs or chemicals.

What are its symptoms?

Pneumonia symptoms can appear anything from a day to 10 days after the initial insult and often sets in after the flu or a cold (usually in these cases it is a bacterial infection), or as a complication of a viral illness such as chickenpox (viral pneumonia).

Symptoms include:

  • A phlegmy cough that doesn’t get better. Sometimes, depending on the organism responsible, there may be blood in the mucous coughed up or it may be rust-coloured
  • Chills with shaking
  • Stabbing chest pain when coughing or breathing
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • Lethargy.

How is it diagnosed?

It is important to see your doctor if you feel suddenly worse after an upper respiratory tract infection, as it may signal pneumonia. Pneumonia in children, older adults and those with immune disorders carries a greater risk of complications such as respiratory failure or generalised sepsis setting in, so it’s vital to treat the infection as early and swiftly as possible.

Usually a pneumonia diagnosis will require a physical examination by a doctor in conjunction with a medical history and a chest X-ray which may assist in identifying the type of infection or pick up other possible causes or changes in the lungs. Additional lab tests may be ordered too, although it is not always possible to identify the causative organism.

What are your treatment options?

Pneumonia treatment will depend on which type of the disease you have. Usually antibiotics, bed rest, plenty of fluids and painkillers will clear up bacterial infections, while antiviral medication may be prescribed for the viral type.

Usually you will start seeing an improvement in two to three days, otherwise your doctor may prescribe a different antibiotic. In serious cases, hospitalisation may be necessary in order to reduce the risk of complications and ensure that the patient’s body is receiving enough oxygen.

Can it be prevented?

Pneumonia prevention starts with the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, a routine vaccination given to babies to protect them from the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia, one of the main culprits behind the transmission of pneumonia. Vaccination against diseases that can lead to pneumonia, such as influenza (flu), measles and chickenpox is also an important precaution.

Smoking makes you more susceptible to pneumonia, as do certain chronic conditions such as HIV/Aids and diabetes, so make sure you kick the nicotine habit and have any underlying conditions well managed. Wash your hands regularly and avoid those already ill or who have conditions that may lead to pneumonia.

What to do now
To make an appointment for vaccinations at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015