Pneumonia is an infection of the
lungs which affects millions of people globally each year. In the
USA alone, about 4 million people develop pneumonia annually and
40,000 to 70,000 of them die. In 1997, pneumonia and influenza
combined ranked as the sixth leading cause of death world-wide.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a serious infection or inflammation of the lungs that
can be caused by various types of microbes, including bacteria,
viruses, fungi, and parasites. Bacteria are the most common cause
of pneumonia in adults over 30 years of age and the bacteria
Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial
pneumonia. When someone catches pneumonia, the infection causes
the lungs to become inflamed and the air sacs in the lungs fill
with pus and other liquid. Oxygen has trouble reaching the blood.
If there is too little oxygen in the blood, the body cells cannot
work properly. When the body defences are weakened in some way, by
illness, old age, malnutrition, smoking, asthma, general debility
or impaired immunity, the bacteria can multiply and cause serious
damage. The infection quickly spreads through the bloodstream and
the whole body is invaded.
Pneumonia often develops after an upper respiratory tract
infection (an infection of the nose and throat). When this
happens, symptoms of pneumonia may occur two or three days after
the start of a cold or sore throat.
The onset of bacterial pneumonia can vary from gradual to sudden.
In the most severe cases, the patient may have a high temperature,
shaking chills, chattering teeth, severe chest pain, and a cough
that produces rust-coloured or greenish mucus.
The patient sweats profusely, and breathing and pulse rate
increase rapidly. Lips and nailbeds may have a bluish colour due
to a lack of oxygen in the blood.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis is based on the characteristic symptoms combined with a
chest x-ray. In the young and healthy, early treatment with the
correct antibiotics can cure bacterial pneumonia. There is not yet
a general treatment for viral pneumonia, although antiviral drugs
are used for certain kinds.
The drugs used to fight pneumonia are determined by the germ
causing the pneumonia and the judgement of the doctor. After a
patient's temperature returns to normal, medication must be
continued according to the doctor's instructions, otherwise the
pneumonia may recur. Relapses can be far more serious than the
Besides antibiotics, patients are often prescribed supportive
treatment: proper diet, bed-rest and oxygen to increase oxygen
levels in the blood when needed. In some patients, medication to
ease chest pain and to provide relief from violent cough may be