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Pneumonia Basics

To protect yourself and others from getting pneumonia, it is necessary to understand what it is and what causes it.

What is pneumonia?
What causes pneumonia?
How is pneumonia spread?
What are common pneumonia symptoms?
What is my risk of getting pneumonia?
Can pneumonia be prevented?
Who should get vaccinated against pneumonia?

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of your lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Pneumonia is not a single disease. It can have more than 30 different causes. Understanding the cause of pneumonia is important because pneumonia treatment depends on its cause.

What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia is not caused by a single type of germ. There are five main causes of pneumonia:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses, such as flu
  • Mycoplasma
  • Other infectious agents, such as fungi
  • Various chemicals

Approximately one-third of U.S. pneumonia cases each year are caused by viruses. These viruses are the most common cause of pneumonia in children and young adults.

How is pneumonia spread?

Pneumonia can be spread in a number of ways, including:

  • Breathing infected air particles into the lungs.
  • Breathing certain bacteria from the nose and throat into the lungs.
  • Contracting a viral upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or influenza (flu).
  • Complications of a viral illness, such as measles or chickenpox.

What are common pneumonia symptoms?

Pneumonia symptoms can vary from mild to severe, depending on the type of pneumonia you have, your age and health.

Bacterial Pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia caused by bacteria usually come on suddenly. They often start during or after an upper respiratory infection, such as the flu or a cold. Symptoms may include:

  • Cough, often with mucus
  • Fever, as high as 105 degrees F
  • "Teeth-chattering" chills
  • Excessive sweating and clammy skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Confusion or delirium, especially in adults 65 years and older
  • Chest pain, that often gets worse when coughing or breathing in
  • Low energy and tired

Non-Bacterial Pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia not caused by bacteria may come on gradually and are often not as bad or as obvious as symptoms of bacterial pneumonia. Many people don't know that they have non-bacterial pneumonia, because they don't feel sick. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Weaknesses
  • Shortness of breath
  • Little mucus when coughing

What is my risk of getting pneumonia?

Anyone can get pneumonia, but some people are at a higher risk than others. Your chances of getting pneumonia increase if you:

  • Smoke
  • Recently had a respiratory infection, like a cold or the flu
  • Suffer from a chronic lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis (CF), or asthma
  • Experience difficulty swallowing, due to stroke, dementia, Parkinson's disease, or other neurological conditions
  • Are younger than one year of age or older than 65
  • Have an impaired immune system
  • Drink alcohol in excess

Can pneumonia be prevented?

Pneumonia can be prevented if you:

  • Get Vaccinated.
    • Vaccinate children younger than five and adults 65 and older against pneumococcal pneumonia, a common form of bacterial pneumonia. There are two types of the pneumococcal vaccine. Talk to your doctor to find out if one or both of them is right for you.
    • Receive a flu shot every year. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so preventing the flu is a good way to prevent pneumonia.
    • Stay up-to-date on other vaccines. There are several other vaccines that can prevent infections by bacteria and viruses that may lead to pneumonia, including pertussis, chickenpox and measles. Talk to your doctor about whether you and your children are up to date on your vaccines and to determine if any of these vaccines are appropriate.
  • Wash your hands. Washing your hands frequently helps prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria that may cause pneumonia.
  • Stop smoking. Tobacco damages your lung's ability to fight off infection. For this reason, smokers are at a higher risk of getting pneumonia.
  • Avoid those who are sick. Stay away from people who have colds, the flu, or other respiratory tract infections. If you have never had or been vaccinated against the measles or chickenpox, it is recommended that you avoid contact with those who are infected.
  • Practice good health habits. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep, you can help your body stay healthy and recover quickly from a cold, the flu or other respiratory illnesses.

Who should get vaccinated against pneumonia?

There are currently two types of vaccines which offer protection against pneumococcal pneumonia, a common form of bacterial pneumonia.  Those who qualify to receive one or both of these vaccines, include:

  • All children younger than five years old
  • All adults 65 years or older
  • People six years or older with certain risk factors, such as:
    • Sickle cell disease
    • HIV-infection
    • Cochlear implant
    • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks

To learn more about the pneumococcal vaccines, visit our Pneumonia Vaccine Facts page.

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