What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs in your lungs. Lungs bring in air, move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide. For the lungs to be able to perform at their best, the airways within the lungs need to be free from obstructions.
The infection causes swelling, which causes liquid and mucus to flood the lungs. The lung’s alveoli, which are essential for air exchange, become filled with pus, mucus and fluid. This blocks air from freely moving through the lungs and traps the mucus, pus and liquid inside the lungs. Having fluid-filled lungs causes a person to cough and have problems breathing. A person with this infection may feel as if they have to exert a large amount of effort just to breathe.
The CDC states about 250,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized due to pneumonia each year. Tragically, there are also 50,000 deaths each year that can be attributed directly to the infection. Although most people who are hospitalized for the illness in the U.S. are adults, it is the most common cause for children to be admitted to a hospital. Worldwide, pneumonia is the primary cause of death from infections for children five years old and younger.
What are the Symptoms?
Pneumonia cases can vary. Sometimes the infection may have symptoms so mild that people may not know they have it, and recover without needing medical attention. Other cases are so severe they may require immediate hospitalization.
A few symptoms of pneumonia are:
- Productive coughing.
- Yellow, greenish, or bloody phlegm/mucus.
- Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing.
- Quick, shallow, fast breathing.
- Sharp or stabbing chest pain that hurts on intake of breath or coughing.
- Malaise of fatigue.
- Loss of appetite.
In addition to the above symptoms, children and seniors can exhibit:
- Nausea and vomiting, especially in small children.
- Poor appetite in seniors and older children.
- Poor feeding in infants.
- Restlessness in infants.
- Pain in the abdomen due to excessive coughing and difficulty breathing.
- Confusion, especially in the senior population.
- Whooping cough (pertussis), may have coughing spells with the classic ”whooping” sound.
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Symptoms of Bacterial Pneumonia
Bacterial pneumonia is the most common form of pneumonia and also tends to be the most serious. The onset can be gradual or sudden. Severe sweating and a high fever (usually greater than 100 degrees F) can occur. Lips and nail beds obtain a bluish tint due to the lack of oxygen. Breathing can become rapid, and the heart rate quickens. A person infected with bacterial pneumonia can also become disoriented and confused.
Symptoms of Viral Pneumonia
Unlike bacterial pneumonia's relatively quick onset, viral pneumonia tends to develop over several days. Early signs of viral pneumonia often mimic the flu: dry cough, weakness, fatigue, fever and muscle pain. However, the symptoms become worse after a day or two. Coughing and fever increase and a person’s lips may turn blue because of the lack of oxygen.
Diagnosis and Treatment
It’s important to seek medical assistance right away if this illness is suspected, especially with young children and seniors. Pneumonia is diagnosed through a physical exam by a healthcare professional. This includes an assessment of the lungs with a stethoscope, a pulse oximetry to check oxygen levels and a chest X-ray may be done. Lab tests may also be conducted on mucus samples to verify what type of infection is present (viral versus bacterial). Knowing the type of pneumonia can help medical staff target the treatments more efficiently.
Not all cases of the illness require hospitalization. In many cases, home care and bed rest is adequate treatment. For all types of infections, breathing therapies and exercises may be used to help the lungs recover and loosen any mucus. Medications to lower fever, address swelling and decrease pain may also be used as treatments.
Antibiotics are the primary treatment intervention for bacterial pneumonia. Antibiotics are not used as a treatment for viral pneumonia. However, there are times when an antibiotic may be prescribed, not for the virus causing the pneumonia, but for a bacterial infection that is present at the same time. There are no treatments used to target viral pneumonia.
In cases where the flu virus is the cause of a case of pneumonia, an antiviral drug can be prescribed to help alleviate the severity of the illness.
Foods that Help with Pneumonia
When dealing with pneumonia, it's important to remember that proper medical treatment, including antibiotics and rest, is crucial. However, maintaining a healthy diet can play a supportive role in the recovery process. While there are no specific foods that can cure pneumonia, certain nutrients can boost your immune system and help your body fight off the infection more effectively. Here are some foods that can be beneficial during pneumonia:
- Vitamin C-rich fruits: Foods like oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, kiwis and bell peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C. This vitamin is known for its immune-boosting properties, and it may help reduce the severity and duration of respiratory infections.
- Garlic: Garlic is a natural immune booster with antimicrobial properties. It contains compounds that can help fight off bacteria, viruses and fungi. Incorporating garlic into your meals can support your immune system during pneumonia.
- Ginger: Ginger has long been used for its medicinal properties. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that can aid in reducing inflammation in the respiratory system. Ginger can be consumed as a tea, added to soups, or used in various dishes.
- Turmeric: Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has strong anti-inflammatory properties. It may help reduce lung inflammation and promote healing. Adding turmeric to your meals or consuming it as a supplement may provide some benefits.
- Probiotic-rich foods: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support the immune system and improve gut health. Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods are good sources of probiotics and can help promote a healthy immune response.
- Protein-rich foods: Protein is essential for tissue repair and building a strong immune system. Include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes and nuts in your diet to ensure an adequate protein intake.
- Antioxidant-rich foods: Foods high in antioxidants, such as berries, dark leafy greens and nuts, can help reduce inflammation and strengthen your immune system. They provide a range of vitamins and minerals that support overall health.
How to Prevent the Infection
The CDC encourages vaccinations for some of the bacteria and viruses that most commonly cause pneumonia. By preventing initial infection, the chances of developing pneumonia can be significantly decreased.
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
- Influenza (flu).
- Pertussis (whooping cough).
- Varicella (chickenpox).
Other healthy practices that can prevent pneumonia are routinely washing your hands, cleaning surfaces that are handled often (doorknobs, faucets) and coughing or sneezing into elbows and sleeves (not into hands). These efforts are not only simple but effective, too. Public areas that are touched frequently can often harbor bacteria and viruses that make people sick.
By washing hands and cleaning surfaces, everyone can do their part to keep pneumonia from occurring.