A few weeks ago, Filipinos got worried—unnecessarily, it turns out—about a pneumonia epidemic when a netizen’s post about an alleged outbreak went viral. It prompted the Department of Health (DOH) to tweet on Jan. 11: “There is no reported outbreak.”
There was a good reason to be bothered. Pneumonia, an infection in one or both lungs, has symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening. The DOH also urged the public to take extra care not to get infected, as it is flu season: “As of December 2018, the number of cases is less than last year, but potential complications such as pneumonia can be prevented by proper hygiene.”
Pneumonia is a very broad disease, said Dr. Tarcela Gler, an infectious diseases doctor at Makati Medical Center.
“It is an inflammation of the lungs caused by a broad range of bacteria, the most common of which is Streptococcus pneumoniae, caused by viruses or fungi. In order to prevent a disease, you need to know the cause,” Gler said.
Treatment, therefore, will depend on the type and severity of pneumonia, and if there are other chronic diseases present, as the goal of the treatment is to cure the infection and prevent complications. Pneumonia causes inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs that could get filled with fluid or even pus, making it difficult to simply breathe.
“It becomes severe or fatal to the very young and very old,” Gler pointed out.
Anyone can get pneumonia, but those at high risk are infants from birth to age 2, and adults aged 65 or older.
Also at higher risk are people who have had a stroke, or who have weakened immune systems due to diseases (such as diabetes or cancer) or who use medications such as steroids or cancer medications, as well as smokers and excessive alcohol drinkers, and people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis or heart failure.
The most common type of pneumonia among adults is bacterial. Many germs can cause pneumonia, the most common being the bacteria and viruses in the air we breathe. Usually, the body prevents these germs from infecting the lungs.
Sometimes, however, the immune system is overpowered even if one’s health is generally good.
There’s bacterial pneumonia, viral pneumonia, mycoplasma pneumonia, and fungal pneumonia (fungi from soil or bird droppings that can cause pneumonia in people who inhale large amounts of the organisms).
Pneumonia is also classified according to how it was acquired. Aspiration pneumonia, for example, occurs when you inhale bacteria into your lungs from food, drink or saliva.
Ventilator-associated pneumonia happens to people who use a ventilator.
But regardless of type or classification, most kinds of pneumonia are contagious. Both viral or bacterial types can spread through inhalation of airborne droplets from a sneeze or a cough.
“That’s why it’s important for people to practice coughing etiquette. Cover your mouth when coughing,” Gler said—and dispose of used tissues promptly.
Symptoms include coughing that may produce phlegm; fever, sweating and chills; shortness of breath; fatigue; chest pain; confusion or changes in mental awareness (in adults age 65 and older); and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Since these can be symptoms of a wide variety of diseases, see a doctor when breathing becomes hard, when there is chest pain, when there is persistent fever (39 degrees Celsius or higher) or when there is a persistent cough, especially when coughing up pus.
Mild signs and symptoms often are similar to those of a cold or flu, but last longer.
Can pneumonia be prevented? Gler said the best prevention is getting a vaccination. It is the first line of defense against pneumonia. Ask your doctor about the vaccinations available in your city. Pneumonia can often be a complication of flu so get an annual flu shot, too.
According to the United States National Institute of Health, pneumonia vaccines won’t prevent all cases of the condition. But once vaccinated, you’re likely to have a milder and shorter illness, and be at a lower risk for complications.
Gler advised people to practice good hygiene—wash hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.