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Pneumonia: 4 facts everyone should know

By Michael W. Rosen, M.D.
Published in Healthy Mind Healthy Body
December 2013

150x150_987_sinusitis.jpgTwenty thousand. That's the average number of breaths most of us take every day. And, each one helps move oxygen into our blood — where it fuels our cells.

Sometimes, however, your body can't get all the oxygen it needs. That may happen when you have pneumonia, for example. It's an infection that can cause coughing, fever and difficulty breathing.

Here are four facts about pneumonia everyone should know:

1. It's common. Anyone can get pneumonia — and millions of people do every year. Among those most at risk of developing it are children younger than 2 years and people 65 and older. Your chances of getting the disease also go up if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have a lung disease, such as asthma or COPD
  • Have a chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart failure
  • Have recently had a respiratory illness, such as a cold or the flu
  • Have a weak immune system
  • Are recovering from surgery

2. It can have different causes — and treatments. Viruses, bacteria or even fungi can cause pneumonia. Chest X-rays and samples of blood or mucus are often used to identify the condition and its cause. These tests can help doctors determine what treatments to use.

Antibiotics, for example, are used to treat pneumonia caused by bacteria. But, other medicines may be needed for cases caused by a virus or fungus.

3. It can be serious — even deadly. Some people feel only mildly sick with pneumonia. Others can become severely ill. It's especially dangerous if the infection gets into your blood — and spreads to other parts of the body, such as the brain. If your symptoms are severe, you may need emergency care.

Serious illness is more likely in young children, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions or weak immune systems. In these high-risk groups, report any signs of illness to a doctor.

Sometimes, a cold or the flu can turn into pneumonia. So, seek medical care if you suddenly feel worse — or you don't improve — after an illness.

4. Vaccines may help protect you.* In adults, the flu virus is the most common cause of viral pneumonia. The flu can lead to bacterial pneumonia, too. That's one reason why yearly flu vaccines are so important. The good news: If you haven't already, it's not too late to get one this year. Check with your doctor or pharmacy about availability.

There are also vaccines for pneumococcal disease. It's a bacterial infection that can lead to pneumonia, blood infections or meningitis. Ask your doctor if a vaccine is right for you or your children. (See "How a vaccine for kids may shield others.")

These stay-well tips can also help lower your risk of pneumonia:

  • Try to avoid people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands regularly. If water and soap aren't available, use hand sanitizer. Choose one that's at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke. Smoking — and secondhand smoke — makes it harder for your body to fight disease.
  • Practice healthy habits. Eat a variety of healthy foods. And, get plenty of sleep and regular exercise.

*Check your benefits plan to see what services may be covered.

Be in the know about pneumonia
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© 2013, United HealthCare Services, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.