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Pneumonia Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors

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  1. Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?
  2. What Causes Pneumonia?
  3. What Are Pneumonia Risk Factors?

What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

Pneumonia symptoms can vary from mild to severe, depending on the type of pneumonia you have, your age and health.

The most common symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Cough (with some pneumonias you may cough up greenish or yellow mucus, or even bloody mucus)
  • Fever, which may be mild or high
  • Shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath, which may only occur when you climb stairs

Additional symptoms include:

  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
  • Headache
  • Excessive sweating and clammy skin
  • Loss of appetite, low energy, and fatigue
  • Confusion, especially in older people

Symptoms also can vary, depending on whether your pneumonia is bacterial or viral.

  • In bacterial pneumonia, your temperature may rise as high as 105 degrees F. This pneumonia can cause profuse sweating, and rapidly increased breathing and pulse rate. Lips and nailbeds may have a bluish color due to lack of oxygen in the blood. A patient’s mental state may be confused or delirious.
  • The initial symptoms of viral pneumonia are the same as influenza symptoms: fever, a dry cough, headache, muscle pain, and weakness. Within 12 to 36 hours, there is increasing breathlessness; the cough becomes worse and produces a small amount of mucus. There may be a high fever and there may be blueness of the lips.
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Call your doctor if you are concerned you might have pneumonia.

What Causes Pneumonia?

Many different germs can cause pneumonia. There are five main causes of pneumonia:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Mycoplasmas
  • Other infectious agents, such as fungi
  • Pneumonia may also be caused by inhaling various chemicals and environmental agents

If you have viral pneumonia, you also are at risk of getting bacterial pneumonia.

Understanding the cause of pneumonia is important because pneumonia treatment depends on its cause.

What Are Risk Factors?

Anyone can get pneumonia, but some people are at a higher risk than others.

Risk factors (that increase your chances of getting pneumonia) include:

  • Age—younger than 5 and older than 65
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Recent viral respiratory infection—a cold, laryngitis, influenza, etc.
  • Difficulty swallowing (due to stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or other neurological conditions), which can lead to aspiration (breathing in a foreign object)
  • Chronic lung disease such as COPD, bronchiectasis, or cystic fibrosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Other serious illnesses, such as heart disease, liver cirrhosis, or diabetes
  • Living in a nursing facility
  • Impaired consciousness (loss of brain function due to dementia, stroke, or other neurologic conditions)
  • Recent surgery or trauma
  • Having a weakened immune system due to illness, certain medications, and autoimmune disorders

Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

Yes. You can reduce your risk of getting pneumonia by following a few simple steps. Here’s how:

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Get Vaccinated

  • Get a flu shot every year to prevent seasonal influenza. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so preventing the flu is a good way to prevent pneumonia.
  • Children younger than 5 and adults 65 and older should get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia, a common form of bacterial pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended for all children and adults who are at increased risk of pneumococcal disease due to other health conditions. There are two types of pneumococcal vaccine. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if one of them is right for you.
  • There are several other vaccines that can prevent infections by bacteria and viruses that may lead to pneumonia, including pertussis, chicken pox and measles. Please talk to your doctor about whether you and your children are up to date on your vaccines and to determine if any of these vaccines are appropriate for you.

Wash Your Hands

Wash your hands frequently, especially after blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, diapering, and before eating or preparing foods.

Don’t Smoke

Tobacco damages your lung’s ability to fight off infection, and smokers have been found to be at higher risk of getting pneumonia. Smokers are considered one of the high risk groups that are encouraged to get the pneumococcal vaccine.

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Be Aware of Your General Health

  • Since pneumonia often follows respiratory infections, be aware of any symptoms that linger more than a few days.
  • Good health habits—a healthy diet, rest, regular exercise, etc.—help you from getting sick from viruses and respiratory illnesses. They also help promote fast recovery when you do get a cold, the flu or other respiratory illness.

If you have children, talk to their doctor about:

  • Hib vaccine, which prevents pneumonia in children from Haemophilus influenza type b
  • A drug called Synagis (palivizumab), which is given to some children younger than 24 months to prevent pneumonia caused by respiratory syncytial virus.

If you have cancer or HIV, talk to your doctor about additional ways to prevent pneumonia and other infections.

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