Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lung. It can be caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses. Pneumonia causes inflammation in your lung’s air sacs, or alveoli. The alveoli fill with fluid or pus, making it difficult to breathe.
Symptoms of pneumonia can range from mild to life-threatening. The severity of your pneumonia usually depends on:
- the cause of your inflammation
- the type of organism causing your infection
- your age
- your general health
Keep reading to learn about what causes pneumonia as well as its symptoms. You should call your doctor if you have any concerns. Severe pneumonia is a medical emergency.
There are five major types of pneumonia. They are:
Bacterial pneumonia can affect anyone at any age. It can develop on its own or after a serious cold or flu. The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae. Bacterial pneumonia can also be caused by Chlamydophila pneumonia or Legionella pneumophila. Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia is sometimes seen in those who have weak immune systems due to illnesses like AIDS or cancer.
In most cases, respiratory viruses can cause pneumonia, especially in young children and the elderly. Pneumonia is usually not serious and lasts a short time. However, the flu virus can cause viral pneumonia to be severe or fatal. It’s especially harmful to pregnant women or individuals with heart or lung issues. Invading bacteria can cause complications with viral pneumonia.
Mycoplasma organisms are not viruses or bacteria, but they have traits common to both. They are the smallest agents of disease that affect humans. Mycoplasmas generally cause mild cases of pneumonia, most often in older children and young adults.
Other Types of Pneumonia
Many additional types of pneumonia affect immune-compromised individuals. Tuberculosis and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) generally affect people with suppressed immune systems, such as those who have AIDS. In fact, PCP can be one of the first signs of illness in people with AIDS.
Less common types of pneumonia can also be serious. Pneumonia can be caused by inhaling food, dust, liquid, or gas, as well as by various fungi.
No one is immune to pneumonia, but there are certain factors that can raise your risks:
- People who have had a stroke, have problems swallowing, or are bedridden can easily develop pneumonia.
- Infants from birth to age two are at risk for pneumonia, as are individuals age 65 or older.
- People with weakened immune systems are at increased risk of pneumonia. This includes people who take medications that weaken the immune system, such as steroids and certain medications for cancer, and people with HIV, AIDS, or cancer.
- Drug abuse increases risk. This includes excessive alcohol consumption and smoking.
- Certain medical conditions raise your risks for pneumonia. These conditions include asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and heart failure.
The general symptoms of bacterial pneumonia can develop quickly and may include:
- chest pain
- shaking chills
- dry cough
- muscle aches
- rapid breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- difficulty breathing
Some symptoms may indicate a medical emergency. You should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of these symptoms:
- skin with bluish tone (from lack of oxygen)
- blood in sputum (coughed-up mucus)
- labored breathing
- high fever (102.5°F or higher)
- rapid heartbeat
Pneumonia can be easily overlooked as the cause of an illness because it often resembles a cold or the flu. However, it usually lasts longer and symptoms seem more severe than these other conditions.
Detailed Patient History
To determine whether or not you have pneumonia, your doctors will usually inquire about your signs and symptoms. Questions they may ask include:
- What are your symptoms and when did they begin?
- What were your recent travels and activities?
- What was your recent exposure to animals?
- What was your recent exposure to individuals who are sick?
- What are your past and current medical issues?
- What medications are you currently taking?
- What is your smoking history?
- Have you recently had any vaccinations or illnesses?
Crackling and bubbling sounds in the chest during inhalation are usually indicators of pneumonia. Wheezing may also be present. Your doctor may also have trouble hearing normal breathing sounds in different areas of your chest.
Chest X-rays can be used to determine if infection is present in your lungs. However, chest X-rays won’t show your type of pneumonia. Blood tests can provide a better picture of the type of pneumonia. Also, blood tests are necessary to see if the infection is in your bloodstream.
The following are additional tests that may be required:
- A CT scan of the chest is similar to an X-ray, but the pictures provided by this method are highly detailed. This painless test provides a clear and precise picture of the chest and lungs.
- This sputum test involves examining the sputum (the mucus you cough up) to determine what type of pneumonia is present.
- If there is fluid apparent in the pleural space (the space between the tissue that covers the outside of your lungs and the inside of your chest cavity), a fluid sample can be taken to help determine if the pneumonia is bacterial or viral.
- A pulse oximetry test measures the level of oxygen blood saturation by attaching a small sensor to your finger. Pneumonia can prevent normal oxygenation of the blood.
- When antibiotics fail, a bronchoscopy can be used to view the airways inside the lungs to determine if blocked airways are contributing to the pneumonia.
The type of treatment prescribed for pneumonia mostly depends on what type of pneumonia is present, as well as how severe it is. In many cases, pneumonia can be treated at home.
The typical treatment plan for pneumonia includes taking all prescribed medications and participating in follow-up care. A chest X-ray may be ordered to make sure your pneumonia has been successfully treated.
Treating Bacterial Pneumonia
Antibiotics are used to treat this type of pneumonia. Antibiotics should be taken as directed. If you stop taking the antibiotics before treatment is complete, the pneumonia may return. Most people will improve after one to three days of treatment.
Treating Viral Pneumonia
Antibiotics are useless if a virus is the cause of pneumonia. However, certain antiviral drugs can help treat the condition. Symptoms usually clear within one to three weeks.
Anyone with diabetes, asthma, and other severe or chronic health problems is at risk for pneumonia. However, in many cases, it can be prevented with vaccines against bacterial pneumonia and flu. Quitting smoking will definitely lower your risk of pneumonia.
Written by: Bree Normandin
Published on Oct 20, 2015
Medically reviewed on May 31, 2017 by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP