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Posted Apr 12 2010 12:00am

          Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs.  It occurs when either bacteria or viruses get stuck in the lungs – the germs multiply and form an infected area.  In order to understand it, things you should know include something about the lungs and what they do. When you breathe in, you pull oxygen into your lungs.  That oxygen travels through breathing tubes and eventually gets into your blood through the alveoli.  Alveoli are tiny air sacs covered in tiny blood vessels called capillaries.  When oxygen-rich air reaches the alveoli, it can be absorbed into the blood and then your red blood cells carry oxygen all over your body.  When an individual has pneumonia, his or her lungs can’t do their job as well as they usually do.  The reason is because this kind of infection creates fluid that blocks the alveoli.  The person can still breathe, but it might be harder to breathe, especially if the pneumonia affects both lungs (often referred to as double pneumonia). 

          The major symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Moderate to severe cough- often junky sounding, but not always.
  • Sustained rapid or labored breathing (as opposed to temporary rapid breathing from a high fever).
  • Medium to high fever – usually will be over 102, but not always.
  • Chest pains – not just during coughing, but in between coughing fits as well.
  • Vomiting – not just vomiting from a big coughing fit, but vomiting even in between coughing fits.
  • Blue color around the lips and face – from lack of oxygen.
  • Wheezing – although wheezing is more often a sign of a viral chest cold, it sometimes can mean pneumonia.

To diagnose pneumonia, a doctor will first ask you questions about how you are feeling – including how well you’re breathing – and examine you.  The doctor will listen to your chest with a stethoscope.  If there’s fluid in there – a sign of pneumonia – he or she might be able to hear bubbling or crackling sounds called rales.  If your doctor thinks you could have pneumonia, he or she may order a chest X-ray or begin treatment right away.  On an X-ray, the doctor can often see signs of the pneumonia infection.  Any buildup of fluid or infection often shows up as a cloudy, patchy white area in the usual see-through spaces of the lungs.  In some cases, the X-ray can help the doctor tell if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.  If the pneumonia is caused by bacteria, antibiotic medicine will be given.  Antibiotics won’t work on viruses, so if that’s the cause of the pneumonia, only fever reducers and sometimes cough medicine will be suggested.  No matter which germ caused the pneumonia, getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids is always recommended.

          Recruits on military bases and college students living in dormitories are at higher-than-average risk for Mycoplasma pneumonia.  These groups are at lower risk, however, for more serious types of pneumonia.  The risk for pneumonia in people who smoke more than a pack of cigarettes a day is three times that of nonsmokers.  Quitting smoking reduces the risk of dying from pneumonia to normal, but the full benefit takes 10 years to be realized.  Toxic fumes, industrial smoke and other air pollutants may also damage cilia function, which is a defense against bacteria in the lungs.  Alcohol or drug abuse is strongly associated with pneumonia.  These substances act as sedatives and can diminish the reflexes that trigger coughing and sneezing.  Alcohol also interferes with the actions of macrophages, the white blood cells that destroy bacteria and other microbes. Intravenous drug abusers are at risk for pneumonia from infections that start at the injection site and spread through the bloodstream to the lungs.

          Between 5 and 10 million people get pneumonia in the United States each year, and more than 1 million people are hospitalized due to the condition.  As a result, pneumonia is the fourth most frequent cause of hospitalizations.  Although the majority of pneumonias respond well to treatment, the infection kills 40,000 – 70,000 people each year.  Men with community-acquired pneumonia tend to fare worse than women.  Men are 30% more likely than women to die from the condition, even if the severity of the illness is the same.  Whether you are a man or a woman, there are several things you should know to keep from getting pneumonia.  The first is to get all of your shots, because one of them can help to prevent a type of pneumonia called pneumococcal pneumonia.  Getting a flu shot can also help guard against getting pneumonia, particularly in persons that have asthma or certain other lung conditions.  Having enough rest is also very important because lack of sleep may make it harder for your immune system to fight infections. Washing your hands is probably the single most important thing you can do to prevent the disease.  Regularly washing with soap and water can keep you from getting colds, the flu and picking up other nasty germs that can cause pneumonia.

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