What is pneumonia?

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Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs caused by infectious and non-infectious agents. The infectious agents include bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Bacteria and virus cause the majority of pneumonias. Due to the inflammation, parts of the lungs get congested with fluid, making breathing difficult.

Pneumonia can be gotten in the community or in the hospital. The former is termed community-acquired pneumonia (CAP). It is the commoner and can affect all ages and categories of people. However, it is more likely to occur in the following situations:

  • Male sex
  • Age greater than 65 years
  • Black race
  • Alcoholism and malnutrition
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Illnesses like asthma, heart failure, diabetes and stroke

What are the symptoms?

The classical symptoms are of abrupt onset and include:

  • Fevers and chills
  • Stabbing chest pain worse on deep inspiration
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough productive of rust-coloured sputum

Less common symptoms include:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Sweaty and clammy skin
  • Headache and confusion
  • Bluish colouration on the lips and skin

What treatments work?

For pneumonia caused by bacteria, antibiotics are given as soon as possible. If the condition is mild, these can be taken at home as tablets. But if symptoms are severe, the antibiotics may have to be given as a drip in the hospital.

If the pneumonia is caused by a virus, the infection will usually clear up by itself. All that may be needed is supportive treatment in the form of oxygen and adequate fluid intake. Mild exercises may also be useful to exercise the lungs.

How can I protect myself?

There’s research to show that the pneumococcal vaccine helps to protect against serious complications of pneumonia. This vaccine is designed to protect against the most common type of pneumonia. It is recommended in the following situations:

• People 65 years old or more

• Those with a long-term illness, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, or sickle cell disease.

• Those with a lung condition, such as emphysema or severe asthma.

• People who have had a stroke or ‘mini stroke’.

• People with a weak immune system (those taking cancer drugs, or have HIV/AIDS).

What will happen to me?

Pneumonia is serious and can sometimes be life threatening. But with prompt treatment most people get well. The ease of recovery depends on several things, including age, general health and some laboratory parameters.

Young and fit people usually get better quickly. Older people and those with other conditions that affect their health find it more difficult to get better.