Pneumonia can vary in severity from mild to serious. In the most severe cases, it can lead to life-threatening complications. But understanding and recognizing pneumonia symptoms can help you know when to get medical treatment.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia involves an infection and inflammation in the lungs. It can develop in one lung or both. The small air sacs in the lungs called alveoli can become inflamed and fill up with pus or fluid.
Pneumonia may be caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses. Some people can also develop aspiration pneumonia, which occurs if food or liquids is inhaled into the lungs.
Various types of germs can lead to pneumonia. According to the American Lung Association, the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae. The most frequent cause of viral pneumonia in adults is the influenza virus. In children, most instances of viral pneumonia occur due to the respiratory syncytial virus.
Both bacterial and viral pneumonia can be passed from person to person. The illness is spread by breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. Fungal pneumonia is usually contracted from something in the environment and is not contagious.
The symptoms of pneumonia tend to be similar, regardless of whether it is bacterial, viral or fungal. Although not always the case, certain types of pneumonia tend to be more serious than others. For example, bacterial pneumonia may have more severe symptoms and last longer than viral pneumonia.
Symptoms may also vary in specific populations of people. For example, infants may not show any signs, or they may only appear restless or have trouble eating.
Older adults that develop pneumonia may also present with symptoms a little differently than younger adults. Older adults may have a lower fever and are more likely to develop a change in mental status from pneumonia.
Pneumonia may come on suddenly and can include several symptoms, including the following:
One of the most common symptoms of all types of pneumonia is coughing. The inflammation in the lungs, along with fluid or pus in the air sacs, triggers coughing. Coughing may produce mucus, which can vary in color from yellow to green.
The length of time a person has pneumonia symptoms can vary. But even after most symptoms have cleared, a cough may linger for a few more weeks.
As with many types of infection, a fever is possible with pneumonia. A fever is your body’s way of fighting the infection. A high fever is typically more common in people who have bacterial pneumonia than viral pneumonia. Fever may also be lower in older adults as opposed to younger people.
Chest pain commonly develops in people with pneumonia. The pain occurs due to the inflammation. Chest discomfort may also be increased by continued coughing. The pain may develop in the middle of the chest and radiate toward the back. The quality of the pain may be sharp or a dull ache.
Pneumonia usually causes some degree of fatigue. The more severe the infection, the higher the chances of significant fatigue. Fatigue may also be accompanied by general weakness.
Shortness of Breath
The inflammation in the airways makes it difficult to get enough air into the lungs. The result is shortness of breath. Shortness of breath will vary in severity depending on the extent of the infection.
Pneumonia may only affect one lung or even one segment of the lung. Shortness of breath can become so severe it leads to rapid, shallow breathing and eventually respiratory failure.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting may develop in some people with pneumonia. It’s not entirely clear what causes stomach upset with pneumonia. But nausea and vomiting are more common in children with pneumonia than adults.
Some people with pneumonia may develop confusion. Altered mental status is much more likely to occur in adults over the age of 65 than in younger people.
Treatment for Pneumonia
Treatment for pneumonia may vary depending on the type and severity of symptoms. In some cases no treatment is needed, or home remedies, such as over-the-counter pain medications, maybe enough to help decrease symptoms.
In other instances, hospitalization may be needed to treat pneumonia, especially in people who are at a high risk of complications. Possible treatment for pneumonia includes:
Some people with pneumonia may have decreased oxygen levels due to problems breathing. Supplemental oxygen is often prescribed to improve oxygen levels in the body.
Breathing treatments may be given to reduce airway constriction and make breathing easier. Common medications used include Albuterol and Xopenex.
If bacterial pneumonia is present, antibiotics are often used to treat the infection. Antibiotics may be prescribed orally or intravenously depending on the severity of the infection.
Coughing can become severe in people with pneumonia. Cough medications may be given that help thin and loosen the mucus, so it is easier to cough up. Usually, the cough is not completed suppressed since it is important to get the mucus out of the lungs.
In cases where a person develops respiratory distress, help breathing is initiated. Ventilatory support might involve noninvasive ventilation, such as bilevel positive airway pressure (BIPAP) or intubation and mechanical ventilation.