Pneumonia: Causes, symptoms and management

Pneumonia: Causes, symptoms and management

Pneumonia is a common lung infection characterised by collection of pus and other fluids in the lung air sacs (alveoli). Lung air sacs are structures that help in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Collection of pus in them makes breathing difficult. Pneumonia can be in one area of a lung or be in several areas (“double” or “multilobar” pneumonia). Many things can cause a pneumonia—though most often they are infectious.

Pneumonia: Causes, symptoms and management

What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia is typically caused by a virus or bacteria you have been exposed to in the environment or is passed to you from another person. Infection can be passed between people from direct contact (usually the hands) or inhaling droplets in the air from coughing or sneezing. Sometimes a person who has a viral infection, such as influenza virus, will develop a secondary infection from bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus while they are sick. 

Pneumonia more rarely can be caused by a parasite, fungus or yeast. Aspi­ration pneumonia is caused by a foreign material, usually food or vomit getting into the lungs from the throat, which irritates the airways and lung tissue and increases chances of a bacterial infection.


 Who gets pneumonia?

Pneumonia can happen at any age. However, it is more common in elderly people and young children. Some people are at higher risk of pneumonia because they have pre-exist­ing lung diseases, poor nutrition, difficulty swallowing, other chronic health problems or problems with their immune sys­tem.

People who smoke and people who are around tobacco smoke are at higher risk of developing pneumonia. People who have not had the yearly influenza vaccine or who have not been immunized for Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (Prevnar13® and/or Pneumovax®23 pneumococcal vaccines) are also at higher risk for lung infections.

Signs and symptoms

The onset of pneumonia can be sudden or slowly progressive. In most cases the symptoms of pneumonia mimics that of flu or other common lung infections such as bronchitis. The main signs and symptoms of pneumonia are: cough that produces phlegm (sputum) which is either yellow, blood-stained or rust coloured, chest pain, difficulty in breathing, chills, fever, headache, excessive sweating, weight loss, loss of appetite, muscle pain, weakness and tiredness.


Diagnosis is based on a detailed history of the individual which involves the signs and symptoms, detailed personal and medical history. Certain laboratory investigations such as chest X-rays to confirm and determine the extent of infection as well as to rule out other chest infections. Sputum and blood tests are done to identify the specific organism responsible for the infection. Pulse oximetry is carried out to ascertain the flow of oxygen through the blood thus, determining the functionality of the lungs.

What is the recommended treatment for pneumonia?

Treatment of pneumonia depends on its likely cause and how ill the person is. The usual approach is to give antibiotics effective against the most likely bacteria causing the infec­tion. If you develop pneumonia while in a hospital or another healthcare facility (such as a nursing home), you may need antibiotics that treat more resistant bacteria. 

If influenza virus (the flu) is occurring in your area, you may be given an antiviral medication instead of or in addition to antibiotics. If your immune system is suppressed, your healthcare provider may choose to treat fungal infections as well. In certain cases, you may also be given a corticosteroid medicine.

Oxygen is given if you are having trouble breathing with low oxygen levels. If you are in the hospital and there is a concern for a highly contagious disease, such as influenza or tuberculosis, you will be placed in isolation. The Centers for Disease Control has guidelines for the type of isolation needed for different infections that can spread easily between people. When you are in isolation, you will be limited in whether you can leave your room and your healthcare providers will take added precautions such as wearing masks and gloves in addition to good hand washing.


Pneumonia can be fully cured without complications in most of the cases. Complications usually occur in individuals with other debilitating diseases such as lung infections, heart ailments, etc. The complications include spread of the infection to the blood and other organs, empyema or lung abscess (conditions resulting from collection of pus in and around the lungs), accumulation of fluid in the lungs, acute respiratory distress (difficulty in breathing due to spreading of the infection in the lungs).


What can I do to avoid getting a pneumonia?

Stop smoking. Avoid being around cigarette smoke. Get yearly influenza virus vaccine and updated Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcal) vaccine.

Wash hands at all times especially when meeting someone with a cold or lung infection. Lead a healthy lifestyle with good diet and exercise.



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