What you should know about pneumonia

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More than a million Americans are hospitalized and 50,000 people die because of pneumonia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With a disease as potentially serious as pneumonia, it’s important to understand the condition, how it’s contracted and spreads, and how to prevent it.

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs. Typical symptomsinclude difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, shaking, chills, dry cough, chest pain and wheezing.

Although the viral infection can be caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, there can be more than 30 different reasons for catching the infection.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), there are five main causes of pneumonia:

“It’s important to understand that pneumonia is not a single disease,” says Dr. Raj Gupta, pulmonologist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill.  “Understanding the underlying cause of the infection allows for effective treatment, which can save lives.”

Dr. Gupta says pneumonia itself is not contagious, but the germs that cause the much more common viral and bacterial forms often are very infectious.

“The germs and viruses that cause the flu, common cold or bacterial infections are easily transmissible if precautions are not taken,” he says. “And, these very typical conditions will lead directly to pneumonia under the right circumstances.”

According to the ALA, approximately 33 percent of the pneumonia cases in the U.S. each year are caused by viruses. The flu virus is the most common cause of viral pneumonia.

“Flu shots are a great ‘bang for the buck,’ ” says Dr. Gupta. “The influenza vaccine helps prevent the flu, which can help to then prevent viral pneumonia and indirectly to bacterial pneumonia.”

He explains that the flu virus can weaken the immune system to the point that a bacterial infection takes root in the lungs and worsens, causing pneumonia.

Bacterial pneumonia, often referred to as pneumococcal pneumonia, is usually caused by the Streptococcus bacteria. Besides pneumonia, pneumococcus can cause other types of infections, including ear and sinus infections, meningitis and blood stream infections.

The CDC reported than about 900,000 Americans contract pneumococcal pneumonia each year. Dr. Gupta says that people with weakened immune systems are at increased risk of pneumonia. This includes people who take medications that weaken the immune system, such as steroids and certain medications for cancer, and people with HIV, AIDS or cancer.

To treat most common forms of pneumonia, physicians such as Dr. Gupta will use antibiotics to fight the bacterial infections and certain antiviral drugs to combat viral pneumonia.

Dr. Gupta says that while treating pneumonia in otherwise healthy people is highly effective, prevention is key to avoiding the infection, predominantly in those who are particularly susceptible. This group includes children under 2 years old, adults over the age of 65, asthma sufferers, those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and smokers.

In addition to recommending the flu vaccine, Dr. Gupta recommends that people also talk with their physician about the pneumococcal vaccine and other vaccines that can prevent bacterial and viral infections.

Hand hygiene and general health maintenance also are high on his list of ways to prevent a potentially devastating pneumonia infection.

“Washing your hands frequently and living an overall healthy life are incredibly effective ways to ward off the germs that can cause pneumonia,” says Dr. Gupta. “If you don’t invite the germs in and maintain a strong immune system, it makes it very difficult for pneumonia to take hold.”

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