Pneumonia: how to prevent it
Pneumonia is a lung infection, which can be mild or potentially serious. It is the leading cause of death among infectious diseases, and its severity can range from mild to severe, even fatal.
The most frequent victims of pneumonia are children, the chronically ill and the elderly, as low immunity in children and aging are considered primary risk factors, due to the weakness of the immune system; and in the case of the elderly, also due to their comorbidities.
If at any time pneumonia is considered severe, when it is concomitant with a spike in influenza, during a pandemic – such as the one we are currently experiencing (Covid-19) – it gets much worse. At that point, our immune system is more fragile and therefore more likely to fail.
How to deal with pneumonia
Pneumonia is caused by many different types of microorganisms, including viruses and bacteria, fungi, inorganic substances, and allergic reactions, which enter the body through the air and lodge in the small air sacs of the lungs (the alveoli) and surrounding tissues.
Although the airways and lungs are constantly exposed to harmful agents from the outside environment, the body’s defense mechanisms quickly fight them off. Pneumonia develops when these mechanisms are compromised.
Pneumonia is, in fact, one of the most serious complications that can be caused by a cold. In fact, the influenza virus increases the risk of developing pneumonia dozens of times over, especially during seasonal peaks in influenza infection.
It should be noted, however, that pneumonia is not exactly a single disease, but several different diseases, depending on the microorganism that causes it.
The symptoms of pneumonia are not always easy to identify, as they are very similar to those of other diseases of the respiratory system.
The most common are:
- Fever (often high);
- Dry cough or cough with yellowish or greenish catarrh;
- Difficulty breathing or even shortness of breath;
- Chest pain;
- Muscle, head and joint pain (weakness).
These symptoms may or may not exist all at once.
Pneumonia can affect anyone, but it is more likely to occur in people with weakened immune systems.
In all cases, the following risk factors can be listed:
- Age (very young or very old);
- Use of certain medications (such as corticosteroids or chemotherapy drugs);
- Having HIV/AIDS;
- Being debilitated by another serious illness;
- Extended hospital stay (due to increased germ exposure);
- Ventilator-associated pneumonia;
- Have underlying lung disease (primarily chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – COPD);
Treatment depends on the type of pneumonia. That is, if it is a bacterial infection, it is treated with antibiotics. If it is caused by a virus, it is treated with antiviral drugs.
Medications are also used to reduce fever or pain. In some cases, oxygen is needed.
Most patients can be treated at home, but the most severe cases require hospitalization.
Most cases of pneumonia in the elderly can be prevented by simply using the pneumococcal vaccine and the annual influenza vaccine.
In general, pneumonia vaccine should be given to the following people:
- Children under six years of age;
- Adults 65 years of age and older;
- Persons living in nursing homes, day care centers, or similar places;
- Lung patients;
- Chronically ill patients;
- Individuals undergoing treatments that compromise the immune system;
- Pregnant women;
- Health care professionals;
- People who usually live with others who are, or have been, infected with pneumonia.
If you are a smoker, one way to prevent pneumonia is to quit smoking.