What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia, rather than being a specific disease, is something of a catch-all term to describe respiratory distress brought on by a number of different causes, all of which have the same end result. The lungs experience potentially hazardous levels of inflammation, usually brought on by bacterial, viral or fungal infection. In some cases, chemicals or accidentally inhaled fluids may also lead to pneumonia.
No matter what the origin may be, pneumonia is characterized by inflammation of the alveoli. The alveoli are microscopic air sacs within the sponge-like tissue of the lungs. Infections or irritants can cause these sacs to become swollen and blocked with fluid or pus. When this happens, breathing is restricted and the body becomes starved for adequate oxygen. Without treatment, pneumonia can worsen significantly, necessitating hospitalization and even causing death. Of the more than three million people who will contract pneumonia, 150,000 will die. That is why early detection, varied treatment options and ultimately, preventative care are important
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of pneumonia can progress from very mild to life threatening. It is often mistaken for the flu until the illness worsens to a serious health threat. Most commonly, you’ll have a persistent, phlegm-producing cough in which blood may be present, and shortness of breath. Many people experience chills, sweats and fever, headaches and muscle pain. In severe cases, you may even feel nausea and diarrhea set in.
Because the term “pneumonia” describes a condition that can have a variety of origins the exact combination of symptoms will vary from one case to the next. Your individual health profile is also a pivotal determining factor in how pneumonia symptoms will present themselves.
Who Gets Pneumonia?
In a given year, over 3 million people will get pneumonia with fifty percent of those infected needing hospitalization. Years ago, more than a third of those who contracted pneumonia would die from it. Thanks to the introduction of modern antibiotics, the mortality rate for pneumonia has gone down to 5%, with many people capable of receiving treatment at home.
Those at greatest risk for getting pneumonia are:
People over the age of 65 are at much greater risk. In the elderly population, pneumonia often exhibits much subtler symptoms than in teens and adults. Therefore, it is extremely important to see a doctor if you notice any sings of infection.
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Young children with still-developing bodies may not yet have acquired the full complement of antibodies their immune systems need to fight infection. Parents should be particularly watchful for early signs if their child has a history of respiratory conditions like as asthma. As with the elderly, symptoms of pneumonia in children tend to be milder, and therefore risk being mistaken for flu.
People whose immune systems have been weakened by illness
If your immune system has been compromised by an illness, whether chronic or acute, opportunistic varieties of pneumonia can be a threat. Sources of immunological distress may include things like a recent illness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (C.O.P.D.), cardiovascular disease, emphysema, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, extreme stress, or even prescription medicines. All of these conditions tax the immune system, leaving your immune system too depleted to resist further infection.
Individuals taking immunosuppressant medicines
Immunosuppressive drugs are prescribed for people who have had organ and tissue transplants and those with autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, ulcerative colitis (Crohn’s disease), arthritis and multiple sclerosis. All of these are characterized by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues or cells.
Organ transplant recipients
In the case of an organ transplant, the body may mistakenly react to the new organ as though it is a hostile invader. This erroneous response may cause the rejection of the transplanted organ. By blocking these reactions in the immune system, immunosuppressive drugs protect the new organ, greatly reducing the likelihood of rejection and making such preventative treatment essential to the long-term survival of a transplant recipient.
An autoimmune disorder is a malfunction of the immune system in which the body attacks its own tissues, or hyper-reacts to substances with which you come into contact. Chronic autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are usually crippling and can even be fatal. Dulling the activity of the immune system serves to protect the body from dysfunctional internal responses while also reducing the discomfort. Sadly, the almost universal trade off in using such drugs is that they cause increased vulnerability to infections.
People who have recently undergone chemotherapy
Chemotherapy targets cells in the body that multiply rapidly. However, it does so indiscriminately, meaning that non-cancerous cells are also harmed. While this is clearly ideal for halting the growth of fast-growing tumors, it also reduces the number of white blood cells available in the blood stream and lymphatic system. White blood cells, also called leukocytes, serve immunological functions that range from protecting the body from bacteria, fungi and parasites, to limiting inflammation. Since all of these factors commonly precede pneumonia, the additional vulnerability caused by chemotherapy requires vigilance by both patient and physician.
Smoking and Alcohol Abuse
Smoking causes severe damage to the cilia within the nasal cavity and bronchial passages. Cilia are microscopic hairs that act as filters for the airways. They prevent dust particles and other airborne irritants from making their way into the delicate lungs. By beating in a wave-like manner, they gently move natural secretions and irritants out of the airway before they can cause harm. Smoking causes paralysis of these important filtration devices, allowing secretions to build up and block the airways. If these secretions contain bacteria or other infectious agents, they can cause pneumonia.
Alcohol can adversely affect your gag reflex, preventing your body from expelling irritants to the throat, the shared pathway of the digestive and respiratory systems. Alcohol also slows the activity of white blood cells.
Additional Risk Factors
Hospitalization in an Intensive Care Unit
Patients in intensive care units of their hospital are already in a state of acute physical and often, emotional distress that can have a negative effect on their immunity to pathogens. Moreover, should they be placed on artificial ventilation, their risk of getting pneumonia rises significantly. The breathing tube inserted through the mouth bypasses much of the upper respiratory tract where many of the respiratory system’s defense mechanisms reside. It prevents the patient from coughing and can also cause the contents of the stomach to back up and be inhaled accidentally. When these contents contain pathogens or irritate the tissue of the lungs, pneumonia can develop.
Surgery or Traumatic Injury
People who have recently had surgery or any kind of traumatic injury are at increased risk. Their lack of mobility, especially if they have to lie on their back, can make it difficult to cough end expel accumulated mucus from the lungs. Immobility can also impede the proper circulation of lymph through the body. Lymph is the body’s natural cleaning system. It cleans dead cells and pathogens from the bloodstream and tissues. When its circulation is not optimal, your resistance to infection is also reduced.
These issues, as well as the increased presence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in hospitals may explain why pneumonia acquired during a hospital stay tends to be more severe than other kinds.
Inhaling corticosteriods for more than 24 weeks
Corticosteroids are prescribed as a treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, according to research published by Johns Hopkins in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they increase the risk of pneumonia by as much as 46%. Although the exact reason is not certain, researchers at the university speculate that inhaled corticosteroids suppress the immune system.
Exposure to Chemicals or Environmental Pollutants
Those who work in the industrial, agricultural, military or building industries may be exposed to chemicals which cause inflammation within the lungs, making it hard for your body to keep them clear. Living in areas with high levels of pollution can also increase the risk of getting pneumonia.
The rate of pneumonia infection is three times higher in African Americans than in Caucasians. In Native American populations, that number jumps up to being 5-10 times that of whites. According to the Center for Disease Control, the mortality rate for Native American infants with pneumonia is double that of the general U.S. population. For this reason, many contemporary allopathic medical practitioners recommend vaccinations for those whose ethnicity places them in a higher risk category.
Causes and Types of Pneumonia
The term pathogen refers to any cause of disease, but most commonly refers to infectious agents. These include bacteria, viruses and fungi. Certain opportunistic infectious organisms can cause severe, even deadly, forms of pneumonia and can affect even healthy people. Examples include the avian flu virus (H1N1 influenza) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), tuberculosis, anthrax, and plague.
This refers to pneumonia acquired in places people frequent in their everyday lives. Places like your child’s nursery school, your gym, public transportation and your office can be hosts to two types of bacteria which cause pneumonia. The first, streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of pneumonia. The other, mycoplasma pneumoniae causes the mild form of pneumonia which is usually referred to as “walking pneumonia.”
Pneumonia contracted during a hospital stay, called nosocomial pneumonia, is usually more serious than other varieties. Hospital-acquired pneumonia is only diagnosed if pneumonia symptoms present themselves at least 48 hours after you are admitted. One subtype within this category is post-operative pneumonia, most common in patients over 70, who have undergone chest or abdominal surgeries. Another subcategory is health-care associated pneumonia, found in people whose health requires them to go to dialysis centers or chronic care clinics where medications are administered by intravenous drip (I.V.).
Medical Tests and Diagnosis
When to Consult a Physician
Pneumonia can be life threatening. If you suspect that you may have it, it is very important to see a qualified physician before your symptoms become severe. If you have a history of respiratory conditions, it is even more essential that you seek out medical expertise right away, since the early stage symptoms can be quite mild, and easily mistaken for a cold or flu. If you are recovering from a cold or flu which suddenly becomes worse, you should see your doctor to rule out pneumonia. If you are experiencing an inexplicable fever over 102ºF, especially if it is accompanied by chills and sweating, and if you have an ongoing cough or shortness of breath, it is time to enlist professional assistance.
Elderly adults, young children, and all those in high risk populations need quick attention since their conditions can progress rapidly from mild to dangerous.
Diagnosis of pneumonia is made based on several factors. First your physician will consider your health history, particularly whether you have a history of respiratory illnesses. Next, he or she will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. Crunchy or bubbly breathing sounds may indicate the presence of fluid accumulation in the lungs. If your doctor detects them, a chest x-ray may be ordered. The x-ray images can confirm with certainty whether you have pneumonia while also allowing your doctor to pinpoint the exact location of the infection. Sometimes, your doctor may also take blood and mucus samples. Analysis of your blood will tell your physician whether your white blood cell count is healthy, while mucus specimens will reveal the exact pathogen behind the infection. Knowing whether the origin of pneumonia was a specific bacterial infection or virus allows your doctor to treat you more quickly and accurately.
How is pneumonia treated?
Treatment of pneumonia is determined by matching the origin of the illness to the proper medication, or other means of healing.
Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.
If a virus caused the infection, your doctor might prescribe antiviral medication. However, it is much more common for no drugs, but plenty of rest and fluids to be the recommended.
If your infection was caused by fungi, antifungal medications are available.
It is essential that you take medications exactly the manner your doctor has prescribed. Use the entire prescription to ensure that no remnants of the illness remain in your system.
Side effects from antibiotics, antiviral and antifungal drugs can include stomach upset, anemia, headaches, rashes, kidney damage and liver damage.
Because pneumonia can be life threatening, you should seek the advice of a medical doctor before using alternative care exclusively. Alternative treatments should be complementary to medical care, rather than replacing it completely. In cases when no pharmaceutical prescription is offered, alternative remedies can offer an excellent source of added support and comfort as your body recovers. For individuals who are at a higher risk of getting pneumonia, alternative therapies like herbs and acupuncture are excellent preventative tools.
Acupuncture uses precise placement of nearly invisible needles to stimulate and balance the flow of bio-electric energy through the body. Its effects bolster immunity, strengthen your lungs and clear excess mucus from your body. Acupuncture practitioners typically have a master’s degree in their art and will do a very detailed exam to determine the best way to assist you. Clinical studies continue to find evidence which supports acupuncture as effective and gentle, and its acceptance in the medical community continues to grow.
Rare. Acupuncture may cause minor, temporary tenderness at the site of needle insertion. Post-treatment, patients may be lightheaded.
$60-$125 per treatment
Garlic is one of the few treatments proven in clinical studies to have an antiviral effect. Since doctors frequently do not prescribe any pharmaceutical medications for pneumonia of viral origin, garlic may be a valuable source of additional support. Herbalists also use garlic to reduce fever and support the cardiovascular system. Garlic supplements should be taken according to a manufacturer’s recommended dosage or the advice of a qualified herbalist. It is useful as a preventative agent as well as a home remedy during an active illness.
Garlic users may notice an odor in the sweat or breath. Garlic may have a very mild blood thinning effect, so excessive intake should be avoided in those who have very low blood pressure or clotting issues.
Lobelia is a bronchial dilator, meaning it dilates or opens the bronchial passages to ease restricted breathing. It is available in tincture form, with a recommended initial dosage of 10 drops per day.
Lobelia is a strong emetic, meaning it can cause nausea in sensitive individuals.
Lungwort is an expectorant, meaning that it clears mucus. In Chinese medicine, it is also considered an emollient, making it a potentially soothing substance. It is known for its gentleness, making it safe even for children. In widely published medical studies, it is praised for potent antibacterial action against strep, staph, and other organisms associated with tuberculosis and pneumonia. When taken in tincture form, 2-4 droppers per day are recommended.
Prevention is the best avenue for avoiding the complications of pneumonia. With more and more treatment resistant strains of bacteria and viruses emerging in recent times, prevention is your most effective line of defense. Any means of strengthening your body’s natural resistance to infection are invaluable. If you have risk factors for pneumonia, like asthma, G.E.R.D., or smoking addiction, resolving those issues will also reduce your vulnerability to infection. For those in high-risk categories, such as the elderly and young children, vaccination may be recommended.