Pneumonia may be an illness that we automatically associate with young babies, the elderly, and the infirm, but this inflammation of one or both lungs can affect any of us at any time, and it currently kills approximately 80 people every day in Great Britain alone.
The recent tragic case of Callan Fendall-Betts, a 15-year-old school boy from the West Midlands, who died of pneumonia on New Year’s Eve, is a sad reminder of just how vulnerable we are to the illness, especially during the winter months when viral infections and flu viruses are prevalent, and so it is vital that we learn to recognise the symptoms and seek medical advice before the illness has the opportunity to advance.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs. It is generally caused by an infection, but there are more than 30 different causes of the illness, including viruses, bacteria, mycoplasma, various chemicals, and infections agents. According to Chief Microbiologist at the Department of Health, Professor Brian Duerden CBE, the most common cause of pneumonia is a bacteria called Streptococcus Pneumoniae, which has more than 90 different strains and is the major cause of invasive infections.
When one or both of the lungs become inflamed, the alveoli (tiny air sacs) that transmit oxygen to bloodstream become infected and filled with fluid and pus. This inhibits the normal exchange of waste carbon dioxide gas and oxygen in the lungs, and makes it harder for the lungs to work properly.
If bacterial pneumonia is present, the body automatically sends white blood cells to attack the germs and protect the lungs, and in a healthy person, this is often enough to keep the illness at bay, but those with a weakened immune system are unable to fight off the infection, and they succumb more quickly to the symptoms including a high temperature, shortness of breath, and a cough that sometimes brings up mucus or blood.
If pneumonia is left untreated, blood oxygen levels can fall dangerously low, leading to a whole range of potentially life threatening conditions such as heart failure, coma, confusion and septicaemia (blood poisoning).
Who is Most at Risk of Contracting Pneumonia?
Anyone can contract pneumonia, in fact, according to the British Lung Foundation, up to 11 people out of every 1,000 get pneumonia in the UK each year. A number that is currently higher than anywhere else in Europe.
But while we are all ‘at risk’ of contracting pneumonia, there are two main groups of people that have a higher risk of developing the illness. The first group includes those with a weakened immune system, a lung condition such as asthma, a heart condition, and liver or kidney problems, and the second group includes babies, young children, the elderly, and people who smoke or drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
Treatment for Pneumonia
In healthy adults, mild cased of pneumonia are generally treated at home with a course of antibiotics, plenty of fluids, and bed rest. Antibiotic treatments can last anywhere from two to six weeks depending on how advanced the infection is, but most people start to feel better by week 3.
In more severe cases, pneumonia patients will be admitted to hospital for more intensive treatments including intravenous antibiotics, oxygen to assist breathing, and in extreme cases, assisted breathing in an intensive care unit.
Continued self-help treatments at home generally include pain relief medicines such as codeine and nsaids to ease pain and reduce fever, and natural remedies to soothe the chest and throat such as hot water with honey and lemon.