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Understanding the many forms of pneumonia

Pneumonia is an umbrella term for a viral, fungal or bacterial infection of the lungs. It is one of the most common lung infections, affecting close to three million people per year in the United States alone. It is also one of the most serious lung infections, causing over 5 percent of those three million people to die. However, pneumonia is rarely serious if it is caught and treated early. Here are some signs and symptoms to look for if you suspect you have pneumonia.

Pneumonia Causes and Symptoms

You may be wondering, "Is pneumonia contagious?" The answer is yes. Pneumonia is transmitted through droplets in the air that are expelled from an infected person's lungs when they cough or sneeze. These droplets, invisible to the eye, then get breathed in by others, potentially infecting them with the disease.

However, there are other ways to contract pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia happens when fluids from the mouth or nose are aspirated into the lungs, usually as you sleep. Pneumonia can also appear when bacteria or viruses from the mouth, nose and throat enter the lungs — this is known as bacterial pneumonia or viral pneumonia, respectively.

None of these transmissions may have a severe impact on a normally healthy person, but in a person with a weakened immune system, any of the above causes can turn into a serious case of pneumonia. Signs and symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Symptoms of a cold that worsen rather than get better
  • A high fever, up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Shaking chills
  • A cough with sputum production (the sputum is normally discolored and bloody)
  • Pleurisy (chest pain)
  • Coarse breathing or crackling sounds in the lungs

Other symptoms of pneumonia can include a worsening cough, muscle aches and headaches.

Pneumonia symptoms normally have a slow onset, and some people can have pneumonia and still go about their daily lives (this is known as walking pneumonia). However, left untreated, pneumonia can get worse, eventually requiring hospitalization. Walking pneumonia symptoms normally mirror those of bacterial, aspiration or viral pneumonia, but may be milder in nature.

Treatment for Pneumonia

Based on your symptoms, your doctor will listen to your lungs and try to determine if your breath sounds indicate pneumonia. You may undergo a chest X-ray, and sputum samples may be collected to determine the type of pneumonia you have. If you have a pleural effusion (a collection of fluid in the pleural space around the lung), this may be removed. Finally, you may undergo a blood test.

Your doctor will either prescribe antibiotics or suggest hospitalization, depending how serious the pneumonia is. Rest, a diet rich in nutrients and medication will help your pneumonia resolve itself.

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