Pneumonia is usually caused by infection of the lungs. The severity is variable. Prevention and treatment are available. Travelers should be up to date on all routine vaccinations to reduce risk.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia, which means inflammation of the lungs, is a common illness that can affect anyone. It is a much more serious condition in the elderly, in chronically ill individuals and in those with impaired immunity from cancer or certain medications. Most of the time, this illness is caused by infection, which is usually caused by bacteria or viruses. Rarer forms of this illness include tuberculosis, fungi or even certain chemicals or medications. Some forms can be mild, as in ‘walking pneumonia’, or life threatening requiring intensive care unit treatment. Fortunately, most cases are mild and full recovery is expected. When this illness develops in a patient already hospitalized for another condition is generally more serious than when this illness contracted as an out-patient.
How is pneumonia transmitted?
This is a contagious illness. It is transmitted when a healthy individual inhales germs from an ill person. For example, if a person with this illness is coughing, then a nearby individual could inhale microscopic germs that were expelled into the air. Even if this occurs, the healthy person may not become ill as his immune system may successfully fight off the germ. Everyone is constantly bombarded with germs, but our immune system keeps us well most of the time. Germs that cause infectious illnesses are called pathogens.
What are the symptoms?
Typical pneumonia symptoms include fever, chills, cough, chest pain and difficulty breathing. Some patients have additional atypical symptoms such as headache, muscle aches, nausea and sweating, which may make the diagnosis more difficult to recognize. Additionally, many individuals with these symptoms are actually suffering from other illnesses. For example, heart failure and blood clots to the lungs can masquerade as pneumonia. Physicians must be diagnostic detectives!
How is this illness diagnosed?
Physicians often suspect this illness from symptoms and the physical examination. In addition, microscopic analysis of coughed up sputum, blood test results and a chest x-ray are helpful diagnostic techniques.
Is treatment available?
The bacterial strain is treated with antibiotics. Most people would still recover without this treatment, but antibiotics shorten the illness. The viral strain, like the common cold, does not respond to antibiotics, although there are drugs available for some rare viral infections. Sometimes, doctors cannot differentiate between viral and bacterial and antibiotics are advised, just in case it’s a bacterial infection. To add further confusion, some viral strains can lead to a bacterial form. If the illness is serious, then hospitalization may be necessary for more intense medical treatment and oxygen.
Can pneumonia be prevented?
The risk can be reduced, but not eliminated. First, smokers should abandon their habit for obvious reasons. Kids in their first year should be vaccinated against two potent pathogens Haemophilus influenzae and Streptococus pneumoniae to reduce the risk of illness. Treating pregnant women who are found to carry certain germs has reduced the risk in their newborns. In addition, the ‘pneumonia vaccine’ against streptococcus and influenza vaccine are advised for adults. Doctors have known for decades that influenza, a virus, can progress to a severe bacterial infection.
Do international travelers need to be vaccinated?
International travelers should be up to date on all routine vaccinations, in addition to any recommended or required travel vaccines. Many travelers face unnecessary risk by going abroad without available protection against influenza or streptococcal pneumonia.