What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infectious lung disease caused by several types of microorganisms or spoors. Persons with pneumonia suffer from inflamed air sacs or alveoli, often accompanied by coughing, mucous or pus production, headaches, nausea, and other indicators. The intensity of symptoms can vary, ranging from relatively mild to severe and potentially fatal. Children and the elderly are most at risk but pneumonia can strike at any age. If you have reason to believe you’ve contracted pneumonia, seek out medical attention immediately.

At Baptist Health, respiratory care is one of our clinical specialties. Our physicians, respiratory therapists, and other care providers deliver comprehensive care, from diagnosis to treatment, for a wide range of respiratory issues, both chronic and acute. You’ll breathe easier, knowing that we’re on your side in the battle for lung health.

What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is marked by a variety of symptoms, depending on the infection’s source. Many are cold or flu-like. Common indicators include:

  • Heavy coughing and mucous or pus production
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Hot and cold spells
  • Chest pain
  • Labored breathing
  • Nausea and suppressed appetite.

Though anyone can develop pneumonia, infants, small children, and the elderly are most vulnerable. Other at-risk categories include smokers, persons with weakened immune systems, stroke victims, and individuals with another respiratory condition or who use a ventilator.

What Causes Pneumonia? How Do I Prevent It?

Pneumonia is caused by infectious agents. There are bacterial, viral, and fungal versions of the disease. Bacterial pneumonia is the most frequent and potentially harmful; viral pneumonia, though serious, tends to be milder. Untreated forms of fungal pneumonia can also be severe.

A second method of categorizing pneumonias is by place or means of origin:

  • Aspiration pneumonia: The infectious agent enters the body while a person is eating or drinking.
  • Community-acquired pneumonia: The pneumonia’s source is the community at large.
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia: The infection can be pinpointed to time spent in a medical facility.
  • Ventilator-assisted pneumonia: Infection is a complication of ventilator use, and pneumonia is one of the diseases spread in this fashion.

Vaccination is an important form of defense against pneumonia. Two vaccines developed specifically to thwart pneumonia are Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23. Flu and Hib vaccines can also be effective. Other steps you can take to limit pneumonia’s transmission include regular handwashing, screening your face when coughing or sneezing, bolstering your immune system with healthy eating, vitamins, and exercise, and, if you smoke, quitting tobacco.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors can make you more vulnerable to pneumonia.

Risk factors include:

  • Age—Young children under the age of 2 and adults 65 and older are at highest risk of developing pneumonia. However, anyone of any age can get pneumonia.
  • Smoking— Smoking decreases the body's natural defense against pneumonia.
  • Hospitalization—If you stay in the intensive care unit of a hospital and use a machine to help you breathe, such as a ventilator, you are at higher risk of developing pneumonia.
  • Chronic disease—Certain conditions such as asthma and heart disease increase your likelihood of getting pneumonia. 
  • Weak immune system—You may have a weakened immune system if you receive chemotherapy, take steroids for a long time, or undergo an organ transplant.

How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

Because pneumonia can manifest in a number of ways, physicians use an array of tests and procedures to distinguish it from other, similar conditions, such as the flu. Likely diagnostic steps include:

  • Medical history: Your physician will want some general information about your health. He or she will also ask questions about the nature and severity of your current symptoms.
  • Physical exam: Your doctor will examine your chest with a stethoscope, listening for abnormal breathing patterns or behaviors, including bibasilar crackles, which are brief, crackling sounds produced at the base of an infected lung.
  • Chest X-ray or CT scan: X-rays and CT scans provide non-invasive, visual evidence of lung inflammation.
  • Sputum culture: Infected lungs often produce pus or mucous, also called phlegm. Sputum is mucous mixed with saliva. A sputum sample will be analyzed for evidence of a pathogen.
  • Blood culture: A blood culture can provide additional evidence for identifying the infectious source of the pneumonia.
  • Fluid sample: Respiratory infections are frequently accompanied by a fluid buildup in the chest cavity, medically termed a pleural effusion. This is another potential source of data on the cause of illness.
  • Pulse oximetry: A pulse oximeter is used to measure the lung’s effectiveness in oxygenating the blood. Poorly oxygenated blood is indicative of a respiratory disorder.
  • Bronchoscopy exam: Bronchoscopes are long, thin, flexible tubes with tiny cameras or other instruments attached at the working end. Your physician can use a bronchoscope to look for evidence of infection from inside the lungs, rather than outside, as with X-rays and CT scans.

How Is Pneumonia Treated?

Pneumonia treatments depend on the type and source of infection, its severity and stage of development, and what, if any, risk factors may be at play in a patient’s condition. Primary means of care include:

  • At-home rest and recuperation: Bed rest and prolonged inactivity are critical to dealing with pneumonia. There are a variety of over-the-counter medications available for headaches, coughing, and other treatable symptoms. Home remedies, such as salt water gargles, mint teas, and cold compresses, can bring relief as well.
  • Prescription medications: Prescription medications are the leading weapon for fighting pneumonia. The nature of the prescribed medication will depend on the nature of the infection, whether it’s bacterial, viral, or fungal. Viral infections sometimes clear up on their own, without a doctor-ordered antiviral.
  • Hospitalization: The most serious cases of pneumonia, typically bacterial, may require hospitalization. Inpatient treatments include intravenous antibiotics, respiratory therapy, and oxygen therapy.

Untreated or especially severe cases of pneumonia can result in medical complications. These include renewed chronic respiratory conditions, pleural effusions, lung abscesses, bacteremia and septic infections, and, on occasion, death.


  • Bacteremia and septic infections—Infections can spread to other parts of your body and result in organ failure.

What Is My Prognosis with Pneumonia?

Most cases of pneumonia are curable. The length of time required to recover from pneumonia will vary, based on the type of infection and the patient’s overall health. Young people will generally recover more quickly than the old.

There are steps you can take to keep the recovery process on track. Follow your physician’s treatment plan, with special attention to completing all courses of medication. Drink fluids and get plenty of rest. Be sure to schedule a follow-up visit, to confirm that you’re infection free.

When It Comes to Respiratory Health, We’re a Breath of Fresh Air

If you’re dealing with a respiratory ailment or condition, see your Baptist Health physician. He or she will be able to assess your condition and determine which medical treatments, if any, are most appropriate for you.

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