Pneumonia awareness: A silent threat to our health

Dr Thapelo Motshudi
13 November 2023
4 min read

Pneumonia, a common but often underestimated respiratory infection, remains a significant global health concern. It strikes silently and swiftly, affecting millions of individuals every year, regardless of age, gender, or socio-economic status. As we gather to raise awareness about this silent disease, it is imperative to acknowledge the profound impact it has on our communities and the urgency of preventive measures and early detection.

Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition that affects the air sacs in the lungs, leading to symptoms such as cough, high fever, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. It can be caused by various pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, making it a versatile and  formidable adversary.

World Pneumonia Day is observed every year on November 12th. It serves as a global platform to raise awareness about pneumonia and its impact on public health. Various organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, and non-governmental organisations, participate in activities and campaigns to highlight the importance of pneumonia prevention and treatment.

The lungs have multiple tiny sacs called alveoli, and they normally contain air. When one has pneumonia these air sacs are filled with fluid or pus instead, and a number of organisms and processes can be responsible for this abnormality. Some bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms can cause pneumonia. It is also possible to get fluid in the lungs from non-infective causes like heart and liver failure, but commonly when we speak about pneumonia, we refer to the infective type.

There are a number of ways in which one can get and spread pneumonia, and generally the infection is classified based on where one was infected. This is because the types of organisms differ depending on whether one was infected in the community or a hospital environment. Some organisms that cause pneumonia can spread by coughing and sneezing, and one can also get pneumonia from aspiration, which is the inhalation of stomach or oral contents into the airways.

In the early stages of the infection, the symptoms are generally similar to those of flu and the common cold, and they depend on the severity of the infection. Symptoms include fever, coughing, chest pains and difficulty breathing.

Even though anyone can get pneumonia, some people are at increased risk. These include infants; the elderly; people with weak immune systems; drug and alcohol abusers; those with chronic lung diseases like asthma; and those with impaired swallowing mechanism from stroke and other neurological symptoms.

Diagnosis is made on the history you provide your doctor, physical examination, and usually a chest x-ray as well, but this is not always necessary. Sometimes, especially with hospital-acquired pneumonia, your doctor might also request a blood test to confirm the specific type of organism responsible for the infection. This helps with ensuring that the correct treatment is prescribed.

For people with general good health, pneumonia should resolve easily with early diagnosis and treatment. However, in some instances, complications might arise as a result of some of the following:

  • Infection with an unusual organism
  • Incorrect treatment regimen
  • Correct treatment but insufficient dose
  • Stopping treatment too early
  • If there are other underlying medical conditions causing a weakened immune system
  • Infants and the elderly

The type and treatment depend on the specific pneumonia one has. Bacterial pneumonia is more common, therefore treatment is usually antibiotics, either given orally or intravenously, depending on the severity. Sometimes patients are given oxygen as well if they are struggling to breathe.

Viral pneumonia is treated symptomatically, but occasionally one can get secondarily infected with bacteria as well and then end up taking antibiotics too. There is also a vaccine available against one of the more common types of pneumonia, and it is usually offered to those at high risk.

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