Pneumonia (cont.)

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How do people "catch pneumonia"?

Some cases of pneumonia are contracted by breathing in small droplets that contain the organisms that can cause pneumonia. These droplets get into the air when a person infected with these germs coughs or sneezes. In other cases, pneumonia is caused when bacteria or viruses that are normally present in the mouth, throat, or nose inadvertently enter the lung. During sleep, it is quite common for people to aspirate secretions from the mouth, throat, or nose. Normally, the body's reflex response (coughing back up the secretions) and their immune system will prevent the aspirated organisms from causing pneumonia. However, if a person is in a weakened condition from another illness, a severe pneumonia can develop. People with recent viral infections, lung disease, heart disease, and swallowing problems, as well as alcoholics, drug users, and those who have suffered a stroke or seizure are at higher risk for developing pneumonia than the general population. As we age, our swallowing mechanism can become impaired as does our immune system. These factors, along with some of the negative side effects of medications, increase the risk for pneumonia in the elderly.

Once organisms enter the lungs, they usually settle in the air sacs and passages of the lung where they rapidly grow in number. This area of the lung then becomes filled with fluid and pus (the body's inflammatory cells) as the body attempts to fight off the infection.

What are pneumonia symptoms and signs in adults and children?

Most people who develop pneumonia initially have symptoms of a cold (upper respiratory infection, for example, sneezing, sore throat, cough), which are then followed by a high fever (sometimes as high as 104 F), shaking chills, and a cough with sputum production. The sputum is usually discolored and sometimes bloody. Depending on the location of the infection, certain symptoms are more likely to develop. When the infection settles in the air passages, cough and sputum tend to predominate the symptoms. In some, the spongy tissue of the lungs that contain the air sacs is more involved. In this case, oxygenation of the blood can be impaired, along with stiffening of the lung, which results in shortness of breath. At times, the individual's skin color may change and become dusky or purplish (a condition known as cyanosis) due to their blood being poorly oxygenated.

The only pain fibers in the lung are on the surface of the lung, in the area known as the pleura. Chest pain may develop if the outer aspects of the lung close to the pleura are involved in the infection. This pain is usually sharp and worsens when taking a deep breath and is known as pleuritic pain or pleurisy. In other cases of pneumonia, depending on the causative organism, there can be a slow onset of symptoms. A worsening cough, headaches, and muscle aches may be the only symptoms.

Children and babies who develop pneumonia often do not have any specific signs of a chest infection but develop a fever, appear quite ill, and can become lethargic. Elderly people may also have few of the characteristic symptoms with pneumonia.

Picture of pneumonia
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/22/2013

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