Signs, symptoms and how to protect yourself this flu season.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a common and potentially fatal lung infection that should not be underestimated. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. When you breathe, air travels through the lungs to the alveoli or air sacs. If you have pneumonia the air sacs in your lungs fill with secretions and fluids that obstruct normal air flow. There are many types of pneumonia, one of the most common and life threatening types is pneumococcal pneumonia, which is caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae.
This bacterium is responsible for approximately 1.6 million deaths each year world-wide. Healthy people may carry it in their nose and throat. While most of the time this does not cause any illness, vulnerable groups such as those over the age of 70, infants and people with a chronic illness may develop pneumococcal disease.
Who is at risk of getting pneumonia?
Anyone of any age can contract pneumococcal pneumonia, but those at a higher risk are:
• People 70+ years young
• People with medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer or a chronic disease affecting the lungs, heart , kidney or liver
• Tobacco smokers
• Indigenous Australians
• Infants aged 12 months and under3
It’s important to remember that no matter how healthy and active you are, your risk for getting pneumonia increases with age. This is because our immune system naturally weakens with age, making it harder for our bodies to fight off infections and diseases.
How can I protect myself against pneumonia?
Prevention is your best protection. One of the most common types of bacterial pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by infection with Streptococcus pneumoniae. There are vaccines against this strain that reduce the risk of infection.
You can take steps to protect yourself against pneumococcal pneumonia by:
- Having the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination.
- Practicing good hand and home hygiene to minimise the spread of germs.
- Making your life a smoke-free zone by quitting smoking and/or reducing your exposure to second hand smoke.
Who should be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia?
Under the National Immunisation Program, the following groups are eligible for a free vaccine due to their increased risk of complications from pneumococcal pneumonia:
- Infants and children aged under 5
- Children, adolescents and adults who have certain medical conditions that put them at higher risk, including people living with chronic lung disease.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under the age of 50, who have medical conditions that put them at higher risk, including people living with chronic lung disease
- All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 years and over
- People aged 70 years and over.
Vaccines are the best defence to reduce the spread of pneumonia. If you are not eligible for a free vaccine, it could still be worth talking to your doctor as you can still receive it by paying for it. Your doctor will be able to provide a recommendation on your personal health circumstances. The cost depends on the type of vaccine, the formula and where you buy it from. Your immunisation provider, such as your doctor or pharmacist, can give you more information or you can visit the Department of Health website here. Influenza is a common preceding viral infection. Being vaccinated against influenza can also help prevent that infection and the pneumonia which may complicate it.
What causes pneumonia and how is it spread?
Pneumonia can be spread through inhaling infected droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze of an infected person. The infection can also be spread through blood or be triggered by a cold or bout of the flu, which allows germs to grow in the air sacs of the lungs. The infection can develop in just 1 – 3 days.
What are the types of pneumonia?
Bacterial pneumonia: One of the most severe and potentially life-threatening forms of pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, which is caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae. This bacterium is responsible for approximately 1.6 million deaths each year, world-wide. Healthy people may carry the bacteria in their nose and throat. While most of the time this does not cause any illness, vulnerable groups such as those of the age of 70, infants, people with a chronic illness etc. may develop pneumococcal disease.
Viral pneumonia: caused by various viruses, including influenza. It is thought that around half of pneumonia cases are attributed to this type of pneumonia.
Mycoplasma pneumonia: caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This type of pneumonia can have some different symptoms and physical signs such as white phlegm, nausea and vomiting. Pneumonia caused by mycoplasma organisms is generally mild, but recovery takes longer.
Other pneumonias: There are other less common pneumonias with other causes such as fungal infection.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
The symptoms of pneumonia depend on the age of the person, the cause and severity of the infection, and any existing problems with immunity. If you or your child or the person you are caring for seems to be recovering well from a cold or flu, but then gets worse, pneumonia may be the cause. See your doctor immediately, since pneumonia can be life threatening to babies, young children and people aged 70 and over. Some of the symptoms of pneumonia may include:
How is pneumonia diagnosed and treated?
A doctor can often diagnose pneumonia based on your symptoms and by examining your chest, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you have pneumonia or another kind of chest infection. Your doctor may also request blood tests and a chest x-ray to help diagnose your symptoms. If you’re diagnosed with pneumonia, treatment depends on your age and the type of infection, but can include:
- hospital admission for babies, young children and people over 70 years old
- plenty of fluids taken orally or intravenously
- antibiotics to kill the infection, if bacteria are the cause
- medications to relieve pain and reduce fever
- rest: sitting up is better than lying down.