The most common symptoms of pneumonia – trouble breathing, chest pain, cough, and fever – are usually the same, no matter what type of pneumonia you have. However, there is more than one cause of pneumonia and figuring out what is behind your illness can help your GP effectively treat your condition.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs’ air sacs or alveoli, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages.
Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in California, explained that whilst you are more likely to get pneumonia if you are a smoker or have underlying medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease, any person of any age can get pneumonia.
Thankfully, pneumonia is not completely unavoidable – vaccines can help prevent some types of pneumonia, and so can practising good hand hygiene and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.
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Though, like viruses, pneumonia will still be contracted.
In 2020, 13,619 people died from pneumonia in the UK, according to the office for national statistics.
In order to remain your healthiest and stay away from illnesses such as pneumonia, it is helpful to understand what can cause the illness and how you can go about preventing it.
Bacterial pneumonia is usually caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, which lives in the upper respiratory tract, doctor Casciari said. “This is the most common cause of pneumonia,” he adds.
You can develop bacterial pneumonia as a complication of a viral infection, like the cold or flu; due to aspirating or inhaling fluid like saliva or vomit; or you can just develop it on its own.
“It used to be thought that the lungs were a sterile environment, devoid of bacteria. We now know that this is not true and that the lungs are ‘colonised’ by bacteria that are harmless under ordinary circumstances,” said Marc A. Sala, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern Medicine.
In some situations, like after a viral infection that disturbs the balance of bacteria in your lungs, you can develop bacterial pneumonia, he said.
Bacterial pneumonia is usually treated with oral antibiotics, Dr. Casciari says. However, in more severe cases, a patient may be given antibiotics, breathing treatments, or oxygen therapy.
There are a lot of viruses that can lead to viral pneumonia. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is the main causes of pneumonia in adults, Dr. Casciari says.
“The typical way that one develops pneumonia is by being exposed to the droplets or aerosols of someone who has an active infection, resulting in inflammation and an immune response, which we then refer to as pneumonia,” Dr. Sala said.
Treatment for viral pneumonia usually involves the use of an antiviral treatment, and just like with bacterial pneumonia, people with severe cases may need supplemental oxygen or breathing treatments.
Dr. Casciari also said that some vaccines can help lower your risk of developing viral pneumonia, including the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine.
Fungal pneumonia is more of a potential issue for people with chronic health complications or weakened immune systems. Nicola Hanania, a pulmonologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that doctors “don’t really see fungal pneumonia in people with normal immune systems”. However, for people with diabetes, AIDS, HIV, or cancer, it may be a risk, she says.
“By and large, fungal pneumonia is not an issue for most people in the US, with the exception of a few organisms,” adds Dr. Sala.
Doctors will usually treat fungal pneumonia with antifungal medications like fluconazole.
According to the NHS, experiencing any of the common signs of pneumonia – fever, chills, cough, and shortness of breath, among others – means you must seek treatment, no matter what could be behind it.