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Health Knowledge and Encyclopedia
At your local Pearn's Pharmacy we can offer advice on most general health matters. You can also use our Health Encyclopaedia to provide you with the tools and links you need to pinpoint symptoms and get a full explanation of a suspected condition.
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Pneumonia is inflammation (swelling) of the tissue in one or both of your lungs. It is usually caused by an infection.
At the end of the airways in your
As well as making you cough, the
Terms such as bronchopneumonia, lobar pneumonia and double pneumonia are sometimes used, but refer to the same condition with the same causes and treatment.
How common is pneumonia?
In the UK, pneumonia affects up to 11 in 1,000 adults each year. It is more common during autumn and winter.
Pneumonia can affect people of any age. However, in some groups of people, it is more common and can be more serious. For example:
For more information, see People at risk.
People in these groups are also more likely to need treatment in hospital.
Some forms of pneumonia can be more severe than others, depending on the cause.
Mild pneumonia can usually be treated at home with antibiotics (see Pneumonia - treatment). People who are otherwise healthy usually recover well. However, complications can still develop.
For people with other health conditions, pneumonia can be severe and may need to be treated in hospital.
This is because there are a number of complications that can accompany pneumonia, some of which can be fatal, depending on the health and age of the patient. These include respiratory failure, (when the lungs cannot take in enough oxygen) due to the air sacs filling with water, as well as lung abscesses and septicaemia. For more information see Pneumonia - complications.^^ Back to top
Pneumonia symptoms vary and can be similar to those of other chest infections, such as acute bronchitis.
Symptoms can develop suddenly, for example, over 24-48 hours. However, they can also come on more slowly, over several days.
Common symptoms of pneumonia
If you have pneumonia, you are likely to have a cough. This may be dry, or you may produce phlegm (thick mucus) that is yellow, green, brownish or blood-stained.
Other common symptoms can include:
Less common symptoms
Less commonly, symptoms of pneumonia can include:
Pneumonia is most commonly caused by an infection, usually a bacterial infection.
However, many different bacteria, viruses and (rarely) fungi cause pneumonia; the germ depends on where the pneumonia began. For example, the germs that cause pneumonia caught in hospitals are different to those that cause pneumonia caught in the community.
People at risk
Some groups of people have a higher risk of developing pneumonia. For example:
Other health conditions that increase the risk of pneumonia developing include:
The most common cause of pneumonia in adults is a bacterium called Streptococcus pneumoniae. This form of pneumonia is sometimes called pneumococcal pneumonia.
Less commonly, other types of
And rarely, the following bacteria can cause pneumonia:
Viruses can also cause pneumonia, most commonly the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and sometimes the flu (influenza) type A or B virus.
Viruses are a common cause of pneumonia in young children.
Rarely, pneumonia can be caused by breathing in (inhaling):
The object or substance inhaled causes irritation in the
In the UK, pneumonia caused by fungal infection of the
Fungal pneumonia can rarely affect people who travel to places where these infections are more commonly found. For example, some parts of the USA, Mexico, South America and Africa.
The medical names for fungal pneumonia include histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosis and blastomycosis.
How a lung infection happens
The germs that cause an infection are usually breathed in.
Rarely, pneumonia can develop from an infection somewhere else in your body, when the germs enter your lungs through your bloodstream.^^ Back to top
To make a diagnosis, your doctor may ask you:
Your doctor will probably take your temperature and listen to the back and front of your chest with a stethoscope, to check for any crackling or rattling sounds.
They may also listen to your chest by tapping it - if the
Most people with mild pneumonia do not need to have a chest
A precise diagnosis is sometimes difficult to make, especially outside hospital, where chest X-rays are not immediately available. Other conditions such as the common cold, acute bronchitis and asthma share many of the same symptoms as pneumonia.
Chest X-ray and other tests
Your GP may arrange a chest X-ray or other tests if your symptoms have not started to improve within 48 hours of starting treatment.
A chest X-ray can show how much your lungs are affected. It can also help the doctor to distinguish between pneumonia and other chest infections, such as bronchitis.
Other tests your GP may arrange can include:
Analysing samples of sputum or blood can help identify the bacterium or virus causing the infection.^^ Back to top
Treating pneumonia at home
Mild pneumonia can usually be treated with antibiotics at home. Bacterial infection is the most common cause.
You should let your GP know if your symptoms do not start to get better within two days of starting treatment. For example, your symptoms may not have improved because:
Sometimes, you may need hospital treatment, for example, if your symptoms are severe. See Pneumonia complications section for more information.
The steps below may help you to ease your symptoms.
Take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve any
Cough medicines are not recommended. Coughing enables you to clear mucus from your
Drink plenty of fluids to avoid
If you smoke, it is more important than ever to stop, as smoking damages your
Once your symptoms improve, it may take some time for you to recover fully. For example, coughing may continue for some time. Speak with your GP if you are concerned.
Your GP will probably ask to see you again around six weeks after you started your antibiotics.
In some cases, they may arrange follow-up tests, such as a chest
Some people may be advised to have
If you have breathed in (inhaled) an object that is causing pneumonia, it may need to be removed.
The doctor may do this by using a tube to look into the airways in your
Pneumonia can develop, for example:
If you get repeated pneumonia infections, this may be a sign of other health problems, such as an existing
Sometimes people can have bronchitis (
Pleurisy, pleuritic pain and pleural effusion
Pleurisy is when the two thin linings between your lungs and your ribcage (the bones in your chest) become inflamed. It can be caused by
Sometimes, symptoms of severe pneumonia can include pleuritic
Less commonly, fluid can build up in the space between your lungs and the wall of your chest. This is called a pleural effusion. If this fluid becomes infected (empyema), it will usually be drained using a needle or thin tube.
Other complications of pneumonia can include:
Rarely, pneumococcal pneumonia can cause infection of the membranes covering the
People with weakened
Treatment in hospital
In young children or people over the age of 65, pneumonia may need to be treated in hospital.
You may also need hospital treatment if:
If you are admitted to hospital, you may have a chest
If the level of
You may also be given fluids or antibiotics through a drip.^^ Back to top
To help protect against pneumonia, people in higher risk groups should be vaccinated. The recommended
It is impossible to avoid
Some lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing pneumonia. For example:
Smoking damages your
If you smoke, the best thing you can do to prevent pneumonia is to quit smoking.
To help you quit, call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0800 169 0 169 for advice and support. For more information, visit the NHS Smokefree website. Your GP or pharmacist can also give you help and advice about quitting smoking.
You can help to stop germs spreading to other people by practising good hygiene. For example:
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