What is pneumonia?
Learn all about this infection so you'll know what to do if you or someone is ill.
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Written by Sonder
Updated over a week ago

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by bacteria, virus or fungi. It is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, especially in older people with comorbidities. As such, it is really important for everyone to understand the nature of this infection, the signs and symptoms, and how to treat and prevent it.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is the inflammation or infection of one or both lungs primarily caused by bacteria or viruses, though it can also be caused by fungi. The infection causes the lungs' air sacs (alveoli) to become inflamed which leads to a build up of fluid or pus. This makes it hard for the oxygen you breathe in to get into your bloodstream.

This infection can range from mild to severe cases that may require hospitalisation (and could potentially become fatal). In most cases, this is something that can be safely managed at home and recovery will take around one to two weeks for recovery.

However, young children, individuals who are immunocompromised, and the elderly may require an earlier assessment from a medical professional to ensure they are properly managed for symptoms.

Anyone of any age can contract pneumonia, but it's generally more common in young children under the age of four years and the elderly.

What causes pneumonia?

Most infections are caused by bacteria or viruses, and can also be triggered by a cold or flu, which allows germs to gain access to the lungs. Although this is the case, clinicians are not always able to find what germ caused someone to get sick with pneumonia.

Some of the micro-organisms that can cause this illness include:

  • Bacteria – Anyone of any age can be affected, but susceptible groups include babies, the elderly, the immunocompromised, and people recovering from surgery or coping with other illnesses (such as lung disease).

  • Viruses – Symptoms are similar to a severe bout of flu. It is thought that around 50 per cent of pneumonia cases are caused by viral infections.

  • Mycoplasma organisms (a special kind of bacterium) – Symptoms can include white phlegm, nausea and vomiting. Illness is generally mild, but recovery takes longer.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary depending on the age of the individual and which bacteria/virus/organism that caused the illness. Symptoms can include:

  • Rapid breathing and breathing difficulties

  • Fever

  • Loss of appetite

  • Abdominal pain

  • Headache

  • Chest pain

  • Cough

  • Blue colouration of the skin around the mouth (cyanosis), caused by lack of oxygen.

How to treat it

Treatment of pneumonia depends on the individual's age and whether it is caused by bacteria or a virus. If the infection was the result of bacteria, the main treatment is antibiotics and letting the body's immune system do its job.

Generally speaking, pneumonia can be managed through some antibiotics, cough medicine, and fever reducing pain relief (such as panadol or ibuprofen), rest, and staying hydrated. If symptoms worsen or haven't improved within the first five days of taking antibiotics, seek medical assistance immediately. Sonder can help provide you with support in seeking medical help if you need it.

If the infection was caused by a virus, antibiotics are typically not effective and symptom management, adequate hydration and rest is usually effective. Some ways to manage symptoms include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and to bring up phlegm.

  • Taking pain medication such as paracetamol to relieve pain and reduce fever. Do not give aspirin to children.

  • Avoiding smoky areas and quitting smoking as this will irritate the lungs.

  • Getting plenty of rest.

If your pneumonia is severe, hospitalisation may be required and you may be given intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and breathing treatments.

Are there vaccines for pneumonia?

The pneumococcal vaccine is available in Australia and can provide protection for some types of pneumonia caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. It is recommended that certain people be vaccinated against pneumonia, including:

  • Young children

  • Older people over the age of 65 years

  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma or respiratory disorders

  • People who are immunocompromised

  • People who have had an organ transplant, have damaged spleens or have had their spleens surgically removed

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 50 years

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at two years of age and older who live in remote communities.

If you are unsure whether you should be getting this vaccine, please consult with your doctor to ensure you are eligible.

It is also recommended that you get the flu vaccine as pneumonia is one of the possible complications of influenza. For more info about getting the flu jab, head over here.

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If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: cottonbro at Pexels

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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