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What is it

Pneumonia is a general term for a range of acute infections that attack the tissues lining the air spaces the alveoli of one or both lungs. The tissues become inflamed, making it difficult for oxygen to reach the bloodstream, impairing breathing, and affecting other parts of the body, including the heart, brain, and kidneys. The inflammation that pneumonia causes may be limited to a single area (lobar pneumonia) or may occur in patches throughout the lungs (bronchopneumonia).

Pneumonia can strike people from infancy through old age, though those over 65 are at higher risk. Until the development of antibiotics, pneumonia caused by bacterial infections was the leading cause of death in the United States. It is now the sixth most frequent cause of death, but in developing countries the mortality rate from pneumonia can be much higher, particularly among young children.

Still, pneumonia usually isn’t contagious, and healthy adults can be cured within two weeks with aggressive medical treatment.


  • Fever (over 100°F, may reach 105°F).
  • Chills.
  • Cough, sometimes with bloody sputum; this cough may last as long as six weeks after the initial infection has cleared.
  • Chest pain on inhalation and shortness of breath.
  • Rapid pulse, rapid breathing.
  • Weakness and fatigue.
  • Muscle pain, sore throat, and headache.
  • In severe cases extreme breathing difficulty, blue tinge to skin, mental confusion.

What causes it

Pneumonia has many causes, but viral or bacterial infections are the most common often as a complication of a lingering cold, or a bout with flu or bronchitis.

Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in adults and children, producing pneumococcal pneumonia. The bacteria are found in the throats of many healthy people. When body resistances are deteriorated by sickness, old age, or decreased immunity, for example the bacteria can increase and work their way towards the lungs. Luckily, a vaccination is accessible to help fight pneumococcal pneumonia.

Many different viruses can also infect your lungs and cause pneumonia, but in both children and adults, influenza viruses are the most likely to progress to pneumonia. Both bacterial and viral pneumonia can strike year-round, but the autumn and winter months, when colds and influenza proliferate, are major times for the disease because people spend more time indoors where bacteria and viruses can spread rapidly from one person to another. Although bacteria are usually inhaled, they may also spread to the lungs via the bloodstream from other parts of the body.

Other risk factors for pneumonia include smoking, surgery, hospitalization, chemotherapy and other immunosuppressive medications, and the prolonged use of antibiotics. Medical conditions that can increase the risk for developing pneumonia include AIDS, sickle-cell anemia, heart disease, asthma, poorly controlled diabetes mellitus, alcoholism, leukemia, chronic kidney disease, and multiple myeloma.

Other pneumonias can be caused by certain fungi and by the inhalation of special chemicals or gases that damage delicate lung structures. Some of these less common pneumonias can be quite serious.

What if you do nothing

Pneumonia is a serious debilitating disease that requires medical attention. If you suspect pneumonia, consult a physician. Most pneumonia sufferers do not require hospitalization; however, the earlier a diagnosis is made and treatment started the less damage will be done to the lungs. Recovery may take anywhere from 10 days to three weeks. Left untreated, viral pneumonia can result in long-term breathing problems, while bacterial pneumonia can lead to scarring of lung tissue or the infection can spread to other vital organs.

Home remedies

Pneumonia, whether bacterial or viral, should be diagnosed and treated by a physician. In either case, though, you can do certain things to help ease symptoms and speed your recovery.

Rest in bed

Complete rest is necessary until the fever and shortness of breath subside.

Lower your fever and reduce pain

Over-the counter pain relievers aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen will help do both when taken according to label directions.

Take an over-the-counter cough suppressant

Look for a product containing dextromethorphan if you have a dry, painful, and persistent cough. Don’t use a suppressant if you are coughing up sputum. Suppressing the cough may encourage mucus accumulation in the lungs that can lead to serious complications.

Loosen lung secretions

Inhale steam, use a humidifier, take hot showers, and drink at least eight glasses a day of water or other non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids to make lung secretions easier to cough up and expel.

Get some relief from chest pain

Use a heating pad on a low setting and place it over your chest for 10-minute intervals.


Get a flu shot

An animal flu vaccination may reduce your risk since pneumonia is a common complication of severe flu among those in high risk groups.

Don’t smoke

Tobacco byproducts weaken your ability to battle infection.

If you’re at high risk, get immunized

If you’re over 65, contact your physician for a pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine. Other candidates for pneumonia vaccine are people who have heart, lung, or kidney disease, have a weakened immune system, or are alcoholics. The vaccine provides long-term protection.

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