Pneumonia: the signs and symptoms to look out for

Pneumonia is more widespread in autumn and winter, so discover the symptoms to ensure you're protected.

Stories of pneumonia can leave us terrified, but if we're clued up on the symptoms, there's a far better chance of recognising it quickly.

Of course, pneumonia can be life-threatening.

According to the British Lung Foundation, 30,000 people in the UK die from pneumonia each year, and it’s one of the leading causes of death in elderly people.

However, pneumonia can affect anyone, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and risks involved with it.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a type of chest infection, according to the British Lung Foundation, and occurs when the tiny air sacs in your lungs get inflamed and fill up with liquid.

Although pneumonia is a well-known condition, it can be misdiagnosed as a number of ailments including the common cold. According to the NHS, 8 in 1,000 adults in the UK get pneumonia every year.

Pneumonia symptoms

Pneumonia symptoms can come on suddenly or over a period of several days. They may include:

  • Coughing (either dry or mucous-filled)
  • Rapid and/or shallow breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Sweating and/or shivering
  • Loss of appetite
woman in hospital, pneumonia symptoms

Credit: Getty Images

  • Chest pain made worse by breathing or coughing
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Confusion

As pneumonia shares many symptoms with other conditions such as bronchitis and asthma, it can be hard to diagnose. If in doubt, see your GP, who will perform tests on your lungs for a diagnosis.

The NHS urges people who experience severe pneumonia symptoms to seek urgent medical help as quickly as possible.

Who is most at risk of pneumonia?

Pneumonia can affect anyone, but those most at risk include infants and toddlers, the elderly, smokers, people with other conditions such as asthma or cystic fibrosis, and those with weakened immune systems.

But it’s important to remember that you can get pneumonia at any age and at any stage in your life.

However, those at a higher risk of contracting the infection include:

  • People with long-term health issues – such as heart and lung diseases. People with cancer can also be susceptible
  • People over the age of 65
  • Young children, especially babies
  • People who smoke and drink to excess

Causes of pneumonia

Pneumonia is usually caused by an infection of Streptococcus pneumonidae, but may also be the result of a viral or fungal infection in rarer cases.

Many pneumonia cases are also contracted in hospital, while others are caused by breathing in a trigger to the infection, such as a harmful substance or, strangely in some instances, vomit.

Pneumonia treatment

Whenever we think of pneumonia, we might tend to think of a frantic, worried dash to hospital and a long, intensive stay there trying to recover. But some of the time, it isn’t nearly as dramatic as that.

Mild pneumonia is actually treatable through bed rest, plenty of fluids, and in some cases a course of antibiotics. People are usually advised to stay at home, bearing in mind that it’s normally safe to around family members, as the infection isn’t usually contagious.

However, there are, of course, more severe cases, and people in the various at-risk groups may well need to be admitted to hospital for treatment. This is because pneumonia can escalate quickly for those with a weakened immune system (the elderly, young children), and may lead to much more serious health issues.

People who are more vulnerable are at a higher risk of developing an abscess or blood poisoning if they have pneumonia, both of which can potentially be life-threatening – hence the need for urgent hospital treatment.

Pneumonia prevention

Practising good hygiene is one of the most common ways of preventing pneumonia and pneumonia symptoms, although it isn’t usually contagious. Be sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze or sneeze into a tissue, and get rid of it as soon as possible.

Getting a pneumonia vaccination can also help prevent against the infection – the PPV vaccine is specifically for people over 65 and those in higher-risk groups, and should only need to be issued once, while the PVC vaccine is given to all babies via the NHS.

Staying generally healthy too – such as avoiding alcohol and smoking – can help to prevent against pneumonia as well.

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