What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. Sometimes it is in only one lung and in other cases it affects both lungs. The infection can be any type of microbial infection – bacterial, viral, fungal, or even mycoplasma. There are over 30 causes for pneumonia. Because of this, it is not always treated the same way.

Viruses are not affected by antibiotics, so viral pneumonia cannot be treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, a full third of all pneumonia cases in the U.S. are due to viruses that attack the respiratory system. And in children under five years old, this is the most common cause. Of viral pneumonia cases in adults, it is typically the flu virus that causes it, although severe acute respiratory syndrome, rhinovirus (the common cold), respiratory syncytial virus, the herpes simplex virus, and others can cause viral pneumonia. In addition, viruses can lead to secondary bacterial pneumonia by weakening the immune system.

With pneumonia, the lungs air sacs (alveoli) are irritated and inflamed. They fill up with liquid and pus. This triggers coughing, chills, difficulty breathing, and fever. This condition makes it harder for the lungs to oxygenate the body properly, leading to weakness and potential death. Lobar pneumonia occurs when one lobe, or section, of a lung is infected. Bronchial pneumonia involves the infection of patches in both lungs. Pneumonia is a very serious condition that requires medical treatment like oxygen therapy and potential hospitalization.

The nose has hairs to catch dust and micro-particles (such as germs) as we breathe in. Then, the sinuses and throat are coated with sticky mucus intended to catch a good deal more of what we breathe in, before the air ever gets to the lungs. But sometimes this filtration system is not effective enough to keep out the germs and bacteria that can cause pneumonia. Other times, a particular germ is strong enough to get past these defenses.

Many people, especially the elderly, the very young, and people with serious conditions like AIDS, are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia because of a weak immune system. With a weak immune system, once germs land inside the lungs, the body is not able to properly destroy the invading microorganism before it spreads and becomes an infection.

Symptoms and Treatment of Pneumonia

Pneumonia symptoms may vary, to some degree, based on the type of microorganism causing the infection. But, for the most part, the symptoms are relatively consistent from one patient to another due to the body’s reaction to an invading microbe. A virus, bacteria, fungus, or mycoplasma invades the lungs causing infection. The lungs, working to fight off the attack, respond with inflammation, increased mucus production, and pus (yellow or greenish liquid that results from the T-cells self-sacrificing by eating and killing the invading microorganisms and then dying).

As long as the body is not able to fight off and kill germs before infection develops, pneumonia occurs. This inflammation and liquid-filled state of the alveoli (or tiny air sacs in the lungs) affects the whole body as oxygen levels decrease, the heart works harder to pump blood to oxygen-hungry organs and tissues, and energy is diverted from other areas of the body to attempt to fight the infection in the lungs.

All of these underlying issues lead to the symptoms of pneumonia which include a mild to severe fever, shortness of breath, coughing (which could be productive or not), shaking, chills, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion, clammy skin, sweating, and sharp chest pain that hurts more when breathing deeply or coughing.

With viral pneumonia, the symptoms look like flu symptoms: dry cough, fever, muscle pain, weakness, and headache. Difficulty breathing occurs between 12-36 hours after onset. The cough and fever will get worse at this time and the lips may turn bluish, indicating a low supply of oxygen.

Bacterial pneumonia can cause a fever as high as 105° F. Breathing gets labored and the patient may sweat profusely. The heart rate accelerates and lips and nail beds may be bluish from the lack of oxygen.

With viral pneumonia in an otherwise healthy individual, the doctor may order bed rest at home. The patient may need extra fluids to loosen the mucus and anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the inflammation of the alveoli. But if the pneumonia is bacterial it may also require treatment with antibiotics.

If the pneumonia is severe, the patient will likely be hospitalized. Fluids and antibiotics may be delivered intravenously. Oxygen therapy will usually be prescribed to facilitate the lungs’ oxygenation of the body. Other breathing treatments may be used to directly reduce irritation and inflammation in the lungs.

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