Pneumonia is a condition caused by an inflammation of the lung tissue, which makes it difficult to breathe and affects the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. It can affect one or both lungs and is usually triggered by an infection.

Pneumonia is more common in the winter months and affects up to 11 out of every 1,000 adults in the UK each year. Pneumonia is particularly dangerous for children and babies, the elderly, smokers and people with existing health conditions, especially if their immune system is compromised.

What causes pneumonia?

The most common cause of pneumonia is infection. Many different types of infection can cause pneumonia but the most common cause is a bacterial infection. In the majority of cases, the infection develops in the lungs but infections in other parts of the body can cause pneumonia if germs travel into the lungs via the bloodstream.

Bacterial infections

The most common cause of pneumonia is an infection caused by a form of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae, but other forms of bacteria, including haemophilus influenzae, staphylococcus aureus and mycoplasma pneumoniae may lead to pneumonia as well. Viruses and fungi can also cause pneumonia but this is much less common and viral pneumonia is more common in children than adults.

Inhaling a foreign object can also cause pneumonia, which is known as aspiration pneumonia and is a rare form of the condition.

Risk factors

Some people have a higher risk of developing pneumonia. These groups include:

  • Babies.
  • Children.
  • The elderly.
  • Smokers.
  • People who have existing health conditions, including heart problems, asthma, cystic fibrosis and kidney and liver conditions.
  • People who have a weakened immune system, as a result of HIV or AIDS.
  • Taking medication that suppresses the immune system.
  • Receiving treatment for cancer or recovering from an illness.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

The symptoms of pneumonia vary and they can come on gradually over a period of days or very suddenly. In many cases, the symptoms are similar to a chest infection. The most common symptom of pneumonia is a cough, which can be very dry and scratchy, while other people develop a cough that causes sticky mucus and phlegm. Other common symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Racing heartbeat.
  • Generally feeling unwell.
  • Fever (a high temperature).
  • Chest pain.
  • Loss of appetite.

Less common symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Coughing up blood (known as haemoptysis).
  • Tiredness.
  • Nausea.
  • Sickness.
  • Joint and muscular pain.
  • Wheezing.
  • Feeling disorientated (this is more common in older people).

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms are similar to other health conditions, including the common cold and chest infections. If you have some of the symptoms listed above, you should see your GP who will ask you about your symptoms and also ask you questions about your medical history and your lifestyle. They will listen to you breathing using a stethoscope and if they suspect that you may have pneumonia, they may check your blood pressure and your heart rate and take your temperature. If your GP thinks it is likely that you have pneumonia, they will advise you to have a chest X-ray. They may also take sputum and blood samples to try and determine what kind of infection is causing your symptoms.

Treatment for pneumonia

Treatment for pneumonia depends largely on the severity of the condition. Mild cases can usually be treated very effectively with antibiotics, which can be taken at home (this is if the cause of pneumonia is a bacterial infection). If your symptoms do not improve after 2 days of taking antibiotics, you should see your GP as the bacteria may be resistant to the antibiotic or the infection may be viral, in which case, antibiotics will not be effective.

Complications of pneumonia

If your symptoms are severe, you have an existing lung condition such as cystic fibrosis or your symptoms do not improve after taking antibiotics, intensive treatment may be required. Children and elderly people may be admitted into hospital because they have a higher risk of developing complications.

Pneumonia can contribute to complications, including:

  • Deep vein thrombosis (known as DVT).
  • Blood infection (such as septicaemia, which can be life-threatening).
  • An abscess in the lung.
  • Pleurisy.

What is the outlook for pneumonia?

In many cases, pneumonia is a mild condition that can be treated very effectively with a course of antibiotics. However, if an individual is suffering from another health condition or they have a weakened immune system, the illness can be very serious and potentially fatal. If you have symptoms associated with pneumonia, it is important that you see your doctor, especially if the symptoms do not improve or subside.

Preventing pneumonia

Living a healthy lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of developing pneumonia. Avoiding smoking and intravenous drug and alcohol abuse will decrease the risk and eating a healthy diet and exercising will help to boost your immune system. People in high-risk groups are advised to have vaccinations, including the flu jab and the pneumococcal vaccination. Your GP surgery will contact you to advise you when you can go in for a vaccination. Throwing away tissues and covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough will also help to prevent the spread of germs.

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