What You Need to Know About Pneumonia
Policy + Politics

What You Need to Know About Pneumonia

© Brian Snyder / Reuters

Hillary Clinton’s near-fainting this weekend at the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony puts the spotlight on pneumonia, a condition that is not uncommon for older adults, young children and those with compromised immune systems. Between 5 and 10 million people get the disease each year in the U.S.

Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs and can be caused by bacteria, viruses or, more rarely, fungi. Symptoms can be mild to severe and include high fever, shaking, chills, a cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse, shortness of breath, chest pain when breathing, and/or feeling worse after a cold or flu.

Doctors categorize pneumonia by where it was contracted. Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP)—the most common type—is contracted outside a hospital or other medical setting. Most cases happen in the winter and affect about 4 million people each year. One in five people end up being treated at the hospital. Hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP) can be far more dangerous because it’s often more resistant to treatment.

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A milder form of pneumonia is often referred to as walking pneumonia—though that’s not a medical term. It is usually caused by common bacteria, pops up in the late summer and fall and typically affects school-aged children, military recruits and adults under 40. Those suffering from it may feel well enough to continue their regular daily activities. Antibiotics are usually prescribed.

Another type is hospital-acquired pneumonia, which people catch when being treated at the hospital for another illness. Similarly, health-care associated pneumonia occurs in other health care places such as outpatient clinics or nursing homes. Last, there’s aspiration pneumonia, which occurs after inhaling food, drink, vomit or saliva into your lungs and can lead to a lung abscess.

After diagnosis, which includes medical history, physical exam, chest x-ray and lab tests, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia and antiviral medicine for viral pneumonia. Most people start to improve after one to three days of antibiotic treatment and after one to three weeks on antiviral medicine. Fatigue, though, can last up to a month. If a patient’s condition doesn’t improve with medication and time, hospitalization may be required.

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Pneumonia also can lead to complications. The bacteria that caused pneumonia can move from the lungs into the bloodstream, where it can infect other organs, including the brain. Pneumonia can also cause lung abscesses—when pus forms in a lung cavity—which can be treated by antibiotics or, at worst, surgery. Pneumonia can also cause fluid to build up in the space between tissues that line the lungs. If the fluid becomes infected, surgery may be required to drain the fluid.

Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, said last year, ““Pneumonia is a leading cause of hospitalization and death among adults in the United States.” He said costs exceeded $10 billion in 2011 and have continued to rise.  

Of course, it’s easier to prevent pneumonia than treat it after the fact. There is a vaccine to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia. Doctors also encourage those susceptible to developing pneumonia to get a flu shot every year. Otherwise, follow typical good-hygiene practices such as washing hands frequently and not smoking.