An Overlooked Illness

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Lacey Weaver, Undergraduate in Microbiology

This is the time of year when most people start to prepare for the flu and the common cold. These defensive tactics might include getting the flu shot or simply keeping up with a multi-vitamin regimen. Most people, however, don’t prepare for the nasty sickness known as pneumonia. Pneumonia can occur by simply breathing a bacterium or virus into the lungs, and with the cold coming and more time spent indoors, pneumonia cases are becoming more common. It is my goal to show what pneumonia is all about from the signs to look for all the way down to what to do if you get pneumonia.

Common causes of pneumonia

There are three ways many people contract pneumonia: by becoming infected with a bacterium, virus, or in some cases, a parasite. Bacteria are the most common causes of pneumonia with Streptococcus pneumoniae being the leading cause followed by Mycoplasma pneumonia. Viruses are the next most common with influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus being the two leading causes of viral pneumonia.

Things to look for

As pneumonia develops, patients experience a variety of symptoms that resemble the common cold like fever, feeling tired or weak, coughing, and some nausea and vomiting. The common cold symptoms are accompanied by shortness of breath, having difficulty breathing, coughing up mucus, and chest pain that worsens with every breath taken and every cough. There is little difference in symptoms between a viral pneumonia and a bacterial pneumonia, but in older adults, both tend to cause less severe symptoms but more confusion.

How to act

The best thing to do is to see a doctor right away. Pneumonia can take up to three weeks to show improvement, so the sooner you start the treatment process, the better. Most often your doctor will take a chest x-ray and prescribe an antibiotic, as bacterial pneumonia is the leading cause of pneumonia. If the antibiotic has had a chance to work but there is still no improvement, then tests will be ordered to identify the causative organism. The unlucky people are the ones who caught the viral pneumonia as normal antibiotics do nothing to rid the body of viruses. The best thing to do in this situation is to control the cough and ride the virus out while your immune system does its job.

Prepare and prevent

The best way to prevent pneumonia is to keep your immune system healthy. Getting the common cold and other infections are gateways for pneumonia to settle in. The likely hood of getting pneumonia increases with a lowered immune system. The most susceptible people are those who are recovering from an infection or have a preexisting medical condition such as asthma, lung disease, or an autoimmune disease. One of the most important things you can do to better your chances against pneumonia is to practice good hand-washing skills. Bacteria and viruses are everywhere, and our hands are the leading source that harbors them. By washing your hands in antibacterial hand soap often, you decrease your chances of catching the bacteria or viruses spread by another sick person. The last thing you can do to prevent pneumonia is to be up-to-date on all your vaccinations. This will prevent any further sickness that could possibly lead to pneumonia. There is a vaccine for pneumonia called the pneumococcal vaccine that will help lower the chances of contracting pneumonia from Streptococcus pneumonia.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Image of S. pneumoniae: CDC/Dr. M.S. Mitchell.

Image of the chest X-ray: James Heilman, MD.