As winter approaches, colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses including pneumonia are on the rise. This isn’t necessarily down to the cold weather.
Pneumonia occurs more during the winter months because we tend to spend less time outdoors and more time in our homes; allowing viruses and illnesses to spread easily amongst each other.
Pneumonia is an infection of lung tissue. It causes swelling of the tissue of one or both lungs. It can be caused by a bacterial infection or a virus (such as COVID-19).
Popular symptoms include a dry cough, difficulty breathing, high temperature, rapid heartbeat, chest pains, thick mucus, loss of appetite, shivering and sweating.
If an individual is already sick with a bacterial or viral infection, pneumonia can develop very suddenly (within 1-2 days). Or pneumonia can develop very slowly over a few days. Either way, pneumonia may require hospital treatment.
A survey carried out by NICE found that pneumonia is diagnosed in 5% to 12% of adults who have symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection. And between 22% and 42% of these people are then admitted to hospital for further diagnosis, testing and treatment.
Pneumonia can affect people of any age. However, it is usually more serious in certain age groups, such as the elderly and young children.
Pneumonia is also more common amongst adults who smoke cigarettes and people with weakened immune systems. For example, if someone contracts the flu, it may weaken their immune system and leave them vulnerable to pneumonia.
There is also an increased risk of people developing pneumonia if they already have health conditions, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis.
Before it can be properly treated, the type of pneumonia must be identified. There are various types of pneumonia.
Community-acquired pneumonia is usually caused by a bacterial infection or a viral infection.
Bacterial pneumonia occurs when bacteria makes its way to the lungs. Complications of bacterial pneumonia include respiratory failure, sepsis, and an abscess of the lungs.
Viral pneumonia is often a complication of common viral infections such as colds and flu. One-third of pneumonia cases are caused by viral infections, which occur when a virus enters the lungs and causes swelling.
Bacterial and viral pneumonia usually have very similar symptoms, which can make it challenging to distinguish between the two. However, treatment of the two types of pneumonia is different, which is why it is crucial to identify whether its bacterial or viral.
A doctor or medical professional may be able to diagnoses community-acquired pneumonia by checking a person’s chest, discussing their symptoms, and carrying out x-rays. Testing kits are also available to distinguish the cause of pneumonia and identify whether it is bacterial pneumonia or viral pneumonia.
Hospital-acquired pneumonia is a lung infection that occurs during a hospital stay, often when a person is receiving treatment and has been in hospital for more than 3 days.
If an individual is already sick, their immune system will struggle to fight off the dangerous germs that can be found in hospitals.
There is a greater risk of contracting hospital-acquired pneumonia if a person is being treated using a breathing ventilator.
Every year in the UK, between 0.5% and 1% of people are diagnosed with community-acquired pneumonia. And 1.5% of hospital patients develop a respiratory infection.
Regardless of which type of pneumonia a person has, they must get plenty of rest and drink fluids. Most people will not require hospital treatment and can recover at home. For viral pneumonia, a person may be prescribed antiviral medication.
For bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics can be prescribed to treat pneumonia. Antibiotics will not help those who are suffering from viral pneumonia.
People within the vulnerable categories, such as children and the elderly, may need hospital treatment. High-risk patients with bacterial pneumonia may receive respiratory therapy and intravenous antibiotics alongside additional medical care.
Hospital-acquired pneumonia is usually more difficult to treat than community-acquired pneumonia. Antibiotics are usually prescribed but oxygen and intravenous fluids are also used. In extreme cases, a severely ill person may be placed in an intensive care unit.
As with most illnesses, prevention is key to fighting pneumonia. For example, getting necessary vaccines to fight viral infections such as the flu can reduce the risk of pneumonia.
Avoiding habits that may make your lungs weak and vulnerable to pneumonia, such as smoking and alcohol abuse, can also help prevent pneumonia.
Washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing can help prevent the spread of bacteria and therefore reduce the risk of pneumonia.