ALTHOUGH some forms of pneumonia can be quite mild, others can rapidly turn serious and even be life-threatening, especially during the severe winter hazards — while treatments are available, the best approach is to try to prevent infection, says the January 2012 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter.
While pneumonia is a possible complication of the influenza (flu) virus, it can occur spontaneously and certain germs can invade your lungs, causing them to become inflamed and fill up with fluid.
Pneumonia that you get from germs you encounter in everyday life is called community-acquired pneumonia which can be caused by:
• Bacteria — Streptococcus pneumonia is the most common type of bacteria that causes this form of pneumonia.
• Viruses — These are another common cause of community-acquired pneumonia.
Although they can become severe, especially when caused by flu viruses, most cases of viral pneumonia are mild and short-lived.
Also, viral pneumonia can make your lungs more vulnerable to bacteria that can cause a second infection, adds the health letter.
• Mycoplasma pneumoniae — Another pneumonia-causing germ, this tiny organism can cause widespread sickness or outbreaks, but it generally produces mild signs and symptoms of pneumonia.
• Legionnaires’ bacillus, fungi, tuberculosis and tuberculosis-related bacteria — They are the less common causes of community-acquired pneumonia.
Certain factors that can make you more vulnerable to infection, causing you to be at greater risk of developing pneumonia, are offered:
1) Age — Individuals, age 65 or older, are at greater risk for pneumonia.
2) Weakened immune system — This can increase your risk for infection.
3) Having a chronic illness — Heart disease, asthma, emphysema or other lung diseases can make you more vulnerable to the infection.
4) Close contact with infected individuals, causing exposure to the causative organisms, such as in hospitals, out-patient centers and nursing homes, especially for individuals on ventilators in intensive care units.
Drug-resistant germs also are much more common in health-care settings, which can make health care-acquired pneumonia more difficult to treat.
There are a number of factors that can help determine the best treatment for pneumonia, including:
• Your age and over all health — Older patients with chronic health problems may have to be admitted and treated in the hospital.
• What caused your illness — For bacterial pneumonia, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics — make sure you take the full course of this medication, even if you start to feel better after just a few days.
If you stop antibiotics too soon, your lungs may continue to harbor bacteria that can cause a relapse of your pneumonia, or bacteria can also begin to develop drug resistance if they aren’t adequately treated, says the health letter.
For viral pneumonia, your doctor may still prescribe antiviral medication to reduce your symptoms and the amount of time you are sick, even though antiviral antibiotics aren’t effective for treating viral pneumonia.
Other medications that can ease a fever, cough or other symptoms may also be recommended for both bacterial and viral pneumonia.
• Where you acquired it — Uncomplicated cases of community-acquired pneumonia can usually be treated at home, following a few basic self-care strategies — such as getting plenty of rest, staying at home and drinking lots of liquids.
While these can help you recover and reduce your risk of complications, it is still important to have your doctor monitor your progress and to report any new or worsening symptoms.
Although pneumonia can have many causes, the health letter offers ways to protect yourself from infection with:
a) Seasonal flu vaccine — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccination each year.
Since many individuals get pneumonia after having the flu, protecting yourself from the flu also lowers your risk of pneumonia.
b) Pneumonia vaccine — The CDC recommends this vaccination for anyone 65 or older, as well as for those at high risk of complications for bacterial pneumonia — such as adults who smoke and adults who have heart or lung disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system due to a chronic illness or the use of immunosuppressant drugs, including corticosteroids and medications to prevent transplant rejection.
If you get the vaccine after age 65, it’s usually needed just once.
If it is given before age 65, in some circumstances, a booster at 65 may be recommended.
This vaccine protects against Streptococcus pneumoniae (also called pneumococcus), a common cause of bacterial pneumonia.
c) Taking care of your overall health — This can also limit your risk of getting pneumonia.
Thus, if you suddenly feel worse after a cold or a bout of influenza — such as having a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and fever, especially if you are older, have a heart or lung disease, or a weakened immune system — let your doctor know right away, since pneumonia can be a serious, even life-threatening illness.