Know the Facts: Treating and Preventing Pneumonia

October 15, 2015

By Brendan Furlong, MD, Chief of Service, Emergency Department, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

Cooler temperatures, the changing color of the leaves and shorter days mean along with our beautiful fall weather, our emergency department will see more patients with viral infections and potential complications, including pneumonia.

Common Infection, Serious Consequences

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be caused by fungi, viruses and bacteria, the most common of which are the influenza virus and the pneumococcus bacteria. Pneumonia can become deadly when the lungs’ air sacs become inflamed and fill with fluid, preventing oxygen from reaching vital organs.

At-Risk Populations

Pneumonia triggers mild to severe illness in people of all ages, and it is especially harmful to some. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children younger than five years of age worldwide, and flu and pneumonia were the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States in 2013 among those 65 years and older.

Others susceptible to pneumonia include people who have underlying medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other chronic conditions; smokers; pregnant women; and children and adults with compromised immune systems.

When to See the Doctor

Although it is sometimes difficult to know when a simple cold develops into pneumonia, some clues may include:

  • Sputum-producing cough with deep congestion
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent fever

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, discoloration of the lips, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, dizziness or confusion, or signs of dehydration. Call your doctor if your milder symptoms do not improve within four weeks or if they worsen.


Pneumonia is typically treated with antibiotics.

Prevention is Key

Vaccines can help prevent bacterial pneumonia and pneumonia-causing infections such as the flu. Vaccine recommendations vary based on age and medical conditions. Although the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines are generally given annually, ask your doctor which vaccines are right for you or your loved ones, based on age, underlying health conditions and other factors that may put you at a higher risk of infection. You can prevent the spread of respiratory infections by covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Self-Care for a Better Recovery

Reduce your chance of getting pneumonia by managing existing medical problems and practicing good health habits: get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress and eat healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables high in antioxidants and vitamin C.

You can also prevent contracting or spreading respiratory infections by:

  • Washing your hands regularly and disinfecting surfaces
  • Covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Avoiding contact with others who are sick, especially those with a fever

Taking care of yourself every day is an important part of preventing and lowering your risk of infection or further complications from pneumonia and other diseases.

Dr Brendan Furlong
Dr Brendan Furlong

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