If you’ve ever been in a situation where it was hard to breathe, you know how upsetting that can be. Pneumonia can create similar symptoms due to the infection of the air sacs in one or both of your lungs. Each year in the United States, about 1 million people need hospital care to treat pneumonia. Fortunately, there are vaccines for protection and good treatment options if you do contract pneumonia.

What Is Pneumonia?

When you have pneumonia, either a fungus, bacteria, virus, or a chemical irritant infects the air sacs in your lungs. As a result, your lungs fill with fluid, and it can be difficult to breathe.

Most people recover with treatment, but complications of pneumonia can arise. For example, respiratory failure, where your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, is a possibility. It’s also possible to get an infection in your blood that can result in organ failure. Finally, pneumonia can cause lung abscesses, forcing your doctor to drain the fluid using a surgical procedure.

Stages and Types of Pneumonia

Stages of pneumonia are usually described by their severity. Pneumonia can start out as a mild condition and then worsen to the point where it is life threatening. Types of pneumonia include:

  • Bacterial pneumonia. Bacteria can invade your lungs and cause an infection.
  • Viral pneumonia. Viruses, like the flu virus, can attack a person’s lungs. If you have viral pneumonia, you may be more likely to contract a bacterial version as well.
  • Other pneumonias. Other infections cause different types of pneumonia, but the two listed above are the most common.

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms can vary based on the type of pneumonia you’ve contracted, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • A cough that produces a thick discharge
  • Being more tired than usual
  • Confusion, typically seen in adults over 65 years of age
  • Fever, sweating, and chills
  • Nausea resulting in vomiting or diarrhea

When someone’s immune system isn’t working as well as it should, that person is much more likely to get pneumonia. Pneumonia caused by bacteria is contagious, while pneumonia caused by a chemical irritant is not.

Prevention and Risks

People who are most at risk for contracting pneumonia are infants, children, people over 65, and people who have other health problems or weak immune systems.

You can help prevent pneumonia by living a healthy lifestyle and managing any ongoing health issues, such as diabetes or asthma. Also, there are vaccines that guard against some of the infections that most frequently cause pneumonia, which include:

  • Flu
  • Measles
  • Whooping cough
  • Pneumococcus — the pneumonia vaccine
  • Chicken pox

Diagnosis and Tests

Testing usually starts with your doctor listening to your lungs. If the doctor suspects pneumonia, the following tests may be ordered:

  • Measuring the amount of oxygen in your blood with a standard blood test will determine if your lungs are pumping enough oxygen into your system.
  • Infections will show in blood tests.
  • Chest X-rays can identify how much infection is in your lungs and its location.
  • Phlegm from a cough can be analyzed to determine the cause of the infection.
  • In severe cases, your doctor might order a chest CT scan to get more detailed information about the infection. Analyzing the fluid around your lungs may let your doctor determine the cause of the infection.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Your primary care doctor should be able to treat many different kinds of pneumonia. If your illness isn’t going away or it’s getting worse, you may get a referral to a pulmonary specialist. This specialist, or pulmonologist, is a doctor who has specialized skill in helping patients recover from lung diseases like pneumonia.

Typically, people with pneumonia will react very well to the available treatments. Most pneumonia patients can recover at home, but your doctor may recommend treating a severe case in the hospital.

Medications used to treat pneumonia include:

  • Antibiotics. If you have bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria.
  • Cough medicine. If coughing is preventing you from sleeping, your doctor may prescribe a medication to calm the cough. Since coughing helps to remove the fluid from your lungs, you shouldn’t take a cough suppressant without asking your doctor.
  • Fever medicine and pain relievers. Drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen will make you more comfortable by reducing fever and pain.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Since pneumonia usually affects people with weak immune systems, focus on keeping your immune system healthy. Some of the things you can do to accomplish this include:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Keeping up with vaccinations
  • Washing your hands often
  • Taking the medication prescribed for you

Eat antioxidant-rich food, such as fruits and vegetables, to help fight off infection. Furthermore, you need protein to repair tissue and your immune system. Choose lean protein, such as beans, chicken, and fish.

You should always drink plenty of fluids during the day. However, you’ll want to increase the amount of you drink if you’re sick. Good sources of healthy fluids are water, juices, beef or poultry broth, and weak tea.

Red and processed meat contains a lot of saturated fats — try to avoid those menu items. It’s also a good idea to cut out alcohol and drinks that are high in caffeine. Both of those liquids can interfere with your rest.


Many people contract pneumonia and seek their doctor’s help to treat it as if it were an extremely bad cold or flu; this approach can be successful. But there can be serious complications when you have pneumonia, so it’s nothing you want to ignore. Learn more about this disease to help you recognize the symptoms. Furthermore, if you or someone you know have flu-type symptoms that are severe or don’t go away, contact your doctor for advice.