If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
By Brendan Furlong, MD, Chief of Service, Emergency Department, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital
During cold winter weather, the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital Emergency Department sees an increase in patients with viral infections and potential complications, including pneumonia.
Common Infection, Serious Consequences
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The most common causes are the influenza virus and the pneumococcus bacteria. Pneumonia can become deadly when the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid, preventing oxygen from reaching the blood and vital organs. This can cause a complication called sepsis.
Pneumonia triggers mild to severe illness in people of all ages, but it is especially harmful to some. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children younger than five years of age worldwide. People aged 65 and older are also at higher risk for pneumonia-related hospitalization and death.
Others susceptible to pneumonia include people who have underlying medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other chronic conditions; smokers; pregnant women; and children and adults with compromised immune systems.
When to See the Doctor
Although it is sometimes difficult to know when a simple cold has developed into pneumonia, some clues may include:
- Sputum-producing cough with deep congestion
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent fever
Seek medical attention immediately if you experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, discoloration of the lips, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, dizziness or confusion, or signs of dehydration. Call your doctor if your milder symptoms do not improve within four weeks or if they worsen.
Pneumonia is typically treated with antibiotics when caused by bacteria. When pneumonia is caused by fungi, it is typically treated with anti-fungal medication.
Prevention is Key
Vaccines can help prevent bacterial pneumonia and pneumonia-causing infections such as the flu. Vaccine recommendations vary based on age and medical conditions. Although the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines are generally given annually, ask your doctor which vaccines are right for you or your loved ones, based on age, underlying health conditions, and other factors that may put you at a higher risk of infection.
Self-Care for a Better Recovery
Reduce your chance of getting pneumonia by managing existing medical problems and practicing good health habits: get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, and eat healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C and other antioxidants.
You can also prevent catching or spreading respiratory infections by:
- Washing your hands regularly and disinfecting surfaces
- Covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing
- Avoiding contact with others who are sick, especially those with a fever
Taking care of yourself every day is an important part of preventing and lowering your risk of infection or further complications from pneumonia and other diseases.