Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that is caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. It is characterized primarily by inflammation of the alveoli in the lungs or by alveoli that are filled with fluid (alveoli are microscopic sacs in the lungs that absorb oxygen). At times a very serious condition, pneumonia can make a person very sick or even cause death. Although the disease can occur in young and healthy people, it is most dangerous for older adults, babies, and people with other diseases or impaired immune systems.
In the United States, more than 3 million people develop pneumonia each year, and about 17% of these receive treatment in a hospital. Most people with pneumonia recover, but about 5% will succumb to the condition.
Bacteria and viruses are the primary causes of pneumonia. When a person breathes pneumonia-causing germs into his lungs and his body's immune system cannot otherwise prevent entry, the organisms settle in small air sacs called alveoli and continue multiplying. As the body sends white blood cells to attack the infection, the sacs become filed with fluid and pus - causing pneumonia.
Pneumonia has bacterial, viral, fungal, and other primary causes. A summary is provided below.
Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia. People who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or alcoholism most often get pneumonia from Klebsiella pneumoniae and Hemophilus influenzae. Atypical pneumonia, a type of pneumonia that typically occurs during the summer and fall months, is caused by the bacteria Mycoplasma pneumoniae. People who have Legionnaire's disease caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumoniae (often found in contaminated water supplies and air conditioners) may also develop pneumonia as part of the overall infection. Another type of bacteria responsible for pneumonia is called Chlamydia pneumoniae. Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia is a form of pneumonia that usually affects both lungs and is found in patients with weakened or compromised immune systems from such conditions as cancer and HIV/AIDS and those treated with TNF (tumor necrosis factor) for rheumatoid arthritis.
Viral pneumonias are pneumonias that do not typically respond to antibiotic treatment (in contrast to bacterial pneumonias). Adenoviruses, rhinovirus, influenza virus (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and parainfluenza virus are all potential causes of viral pneumonia.
Some people are more likely than others to develop pneumonia. Individuals at higher risk include those who:
Have other medical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, asthma, or HIV/AIDS.
Are younger than 1 year of age or older than 65.
Have a weakened or impaired immune system.
Take medicines for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Have recently recovered from a cold or influenza infection.
Have been recently hospitalized in an intensive care unit.
Have been exposed to certain chemicals or pollutants.
Are Native Alaskan or certain Native American ethnicity.
Have any increased risk of breathing mucus or saliva from the nose or mouth, liquids, or food from the stomach into the lungs.
Symptoms of pneumonia caused by bacteria usually come on more quickly than pneumonia caused by virus. Elderly persons and small children may actually have fewer or more mild symptoms than expected for such high risk groups. Most people with pneumonia begin with cold and flu symptoms and then develop a high fever, chills, and cough with sputum.
Although symptoms may vary greatly depending on other underlying conditions, common symptoms include:
Rusty or green mucus (sputum) coughed up from lungs
Fast breathing and shortness of breath
Chest pain that usually worsens when taking a deep breath (pleuritic pain)
Fatigue and feeling very weak
Nausea and vomiting
Confusion or delirium
Dusky or purplish skin color (cyanosis) from poorly oxygenated blood
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