Thumbnail image of: Respiratory System: Illustration


What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs. Inside the lungs are tiny air sacs, called alveoli. These sacs help the oxygen you breathe in get into your bloodstream. Pneumonia causes swelling and irritation of the air sacs in your lungs. The air sacs may fill with fluid or pus and cause you to cough or have trouble breathing. There may be less oxygen in your blood and your body may not get enough oxygen to work properly.

What is the cause?

Pneumonia may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection or by breathing food or fluid into your lungs. You may be more at risk for pneumonia if:

  • You have another disease, such as diabetes, chronic bronchitis, or cancer.
  • You have recently had surgery, especially if you had general anesthesia. When you are under anesthesia, you do not breathe deeply, and fluid may build up in your lungs.
  • You are over age 65.
  • You have a problem, such as a stroke, that makes it hard for you to swallow.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Chest pain, especially when you take a deep breath
  • Cough that may bring up rust-colored or bloody mucus

Not all types of pneumonia cause a high fever. The only symptom may be several days or weeks of dry cough, often with extreme tiredness. In older adults, the only early sign of pneumonia may be confusion or being less active.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Sputum culture, which is a test of a sample of mucus coughed up from deep in your lungs
  • Chest X-ray

How is it treated?

If your symptoms are very mild, you may need only rest, fluids, and follow up appointments with your healthcare provider. Your provider may prescribe antibiotics or other medicine, depending on the cause of your pneumonia.

If you are very ill, you may need to be in the hospital. Treatment may include:

  • Giving you oxygen to breathe
  • Having a tube in your throat and a machine to help you breathe and to make sure you are getting enough oxygen
  • Giving you IV fluids and medicines, such as antibiotics to treat infection and inhaled medicines to open up the airway

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • If you are taking an antibiotic, take the medicine for as long as your healthcare provider prescribes, even if you feel better. If you stop taking the medicine too soon, you may not kill all of the bacteria and you may get sick again.
  • Drink more liquids (water or tea) every day to help you cough up mucus more easily unless your provider has told you to limit your fluids.
  • Cough up mucus as much as possible. Use cough medicine only if your provider recommends it.
  • Don’t smoke, and stay away from others who are smoking.
  • Avoid breathing dust and chemical fumes.
  • Get extra rest.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Take nonprescription medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen to treat pain and fever. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Use a heating pad on a low setting to reduce any chest pain caused by coughing. Be careful not to fall asleep while you are using the heating pad.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening symptoms.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent pneumonia?

To reduce your risk of getting a lung infection:

  • Wash your hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Also wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from people who are sick, if you can.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • Get a flu shot as soon as they are available in the fall to protect against flu.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should get the pneumococcal shot. This shot helps prevent serious complications of pneumonia, such as an infection of the blood or brain.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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