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What is pneumonia?


Pneumonia, which means inflammation of the lungs, is a common illness that can affect anyone. It is a much more serious condition in the elderly, in chronically ill individuals, and in those with impaired immunity from cancer or certain medications. Most pneumonia is caused by infection, which is usually caused by bacteria or viruses. Rarer forms of pneumonia include tuberculosis, fungi, or even certain chemicals or medications. Pneumonias can be mild, as in ‘walking pneumonia,’ or life threatening, requiring intensive care unit treatment. Fortunately, most cases are mild and full recovery is expected. Pneumonia that develops in a patient already hospitalized for another condition is generally more serious than pneumonia contracted as an out-patient.


How is pneumonia transmitted?


Pneumonia is a contagious illness. It is transmitted when a healthy individual inhales germs from an ill person. For example, if a person with pneumonia is coughing, a nearby individual could inhale microscopic germs that are expelled into the air. Even if this occurs, the healthy person may not become ill as his immune system may successfully fight off the germ. Everyone is constantly bombarded with germs, but our immune system keeps us well most of the time. Germs that can cause pneumonia and other infectious illnesses are called pathogens.


What are the symptoms?


Typical pneumonia symptoms include fever, chills, cough, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. Some patients have additional atypical symptoms such as headache, muscle aches, nausea, and sweating, which may make the diagnosis more difficult to determine. Additionally, many individuals with “pneumonia symptoms” are actually suffering from other illnesses. For example, heart failure and blood clots to the lungs can masquerade as pneumonia.


How is pneumonia diagnosed?


Physicians often suspect pneumonia based on symptoms and the physical examination. In addition, microscopic analysis of coughed up sputum, blood test results, and a chest x-ray are helpful diagnostic techniques.


Is treatment available?


Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. Most people would still recover without this treatment, but antibiotics shorten the length of the illness. Viral pneumonia, like the common cold, does not respond to antibiotics, although there are drugs available for some rare viral infections. Sometimes, doctors cannot differentiate between viral and bacterial, and antibiotics are advised, just in case it’s a bacterial infection. To add to the complexity of treatment, some viral pneumonias can lead to bacterial pneumonias. If the pneumonia is serious, then hospitalization may be necessary for more intense medical treatment and oxygen.


Can pneumonia be prevented?


Pneumonia risk can be reduced, but not eliminated. First, smokers should abandon their habit because of the many serious health risks posed by smoking. Children in their first year should be vaccinated against two potent pneumonia pathogens—Haemophilus influenza and Streptococcus pneumoniae—to reduce pneumonia risk. Treating pregnant women who are found to carry certain germs has reduced pneumonia risk in their newborns. In addition, the pneumonia vaccine against streptococcus and the influenza vaccine are advised for adults.


Do international travelers need to be vaccinated?


International travelers should be up to date on all routine vaccinations, in addition to any recommended or required travel vaccines. Many travelers face unnecessary risk by going abroad without available protection against influenza or streptococcal pneumonia.