Pneumonia is a widespread but treatable illness

September 13, 2016 Providence Health Team

It was the stumble seen ‘round the political world.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton staggered and had to be helped into a van after she abruptly left a 9-11 memorial observance. Her campaign said later that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Her physician also said she had become dehydrated.

Only Clinton and her physician can speak with certainty about her case, but the high-profile episode sparked a flurry of interest and speculation about pneumonia and its symptoms.

Here are some things to understand about the illness.

What it is, how it is contracted

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes the millions of sacs that normally are filled with air to fill with fluid instead. The infection can be caused by bacteria, fungi or a virus such as the flu.

People can get pneumonia a number of ways:

  • It can spread by airborne droplets from an infected person and through blood.
  • It can result from aspiration, or the inhaling of food, drink, chemicals, smoke or other harmful substances.
  • It can be caused by bacterial infections, such as Legionella, which causes Legionnaires’ disease.

It’s easier to contract pneumonia if you smoke or have an underlying condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.

Pneumonia symptoms, effects and diagnosis

Generally, pneumonia constricts a person’s breathing. It’s often accompanied by coughing or wheezing, or both.

Symptoms of pneumonia caused by bacteria usually come on quickly. They may include:

  • Cough. You will likely cough up mucus (sputum) from your lungs. Mucus may be rusty or green or tinged with blood
  • Fever
  • Fast breathing and feeling short of breath
  • Shaking and "teeth-chattering" chills
  • Chest pain that often feels worse when you cough or inhale
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling very tired or very weak
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you have mild symptoms, your doctor may call this "walking pneumonia."

Older adults may have different, fewer or milder symptoms. They may not have a fever. Or they may have a cough with little mucus. The main sign of pneumonia in older adults may be a change in how well they think. Confusion or delirium is common. Or, if they already have a lung disease, that condition may get worse.

Symptoms caused by viruses are the same as those caused by bacteria. But they may come on slowly and often are not as obvious or as bad.

Prognosis and treatment for pneumonia

If your case of pneumonia is caused by bacteria, your health care provider will prescribe antibiotics, which usually are effective.

Viral pneumonia is usually treated with rest, sleep and by drinking plenty of liquids.

Preventive measures

In addition to commonsense measures such as avoiding people with colds, chickenpox and pneumonia, health experts say it’s best to get immunizations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) for:

  • Children younger than 5
  • Adults 65 and older
  • People 6 and older with certain risk factors.

The CDC says you also can lower your risk of pneumonia by getting vaccines for the flu, chickenpox, measles and whooping cough.

Further reading

The Providence Health Library has a good overview of the causes, symptoms and treatment for pneumonia.

The World Health Organization fact sheet on pneumonia notes that it accounts for 15 percent of all deaths of children under age 5. It says the illness can be prevented by immunization, adequate nutrition and by addressing environmental risks.

If you haven’t gotten a shot for flu or pneumonia, talk to your health care provider about getting one. If you have symptoms such as wheezing, coughing or difficulty breathing, see your provider for a diagnosis. You can find a Providence provider here.

Previous Article
Stress reduces the likelihood of conception
Stress reduces the likelihood of conception

Women who are ovulating are less likely to become pregnant if they feel stressed, according to a new study.

Next Article
Why is the glycemic index important to your health?
Why is the glycemic index important to your health?

What you know about the glycemic index can help you choose what to eat, how much and when.