We’ve all heard of pneumonia; we all know it is a bad thing, something to be avoided at all cost. By understanding the nature of this serious disease, as well as its causes, treatments, and prevention strategies, you can reduce your chances of succumbing to this dreaded illness.
“Pneumon” is the ancient Greek word for lung, and “pneumonia” indicates disease or inflammation of the lungs. But lungs are comprised of several main structural entities, and pneumonia has come to specifically mean inflammation of the air sacs. Air sacs (alveoli) are the microscopic chambers found at that termination of the lung’s tiny air-delivery tube system (bronchioles). There are approximately 500 million of these air sacs in each lung! Despite their diminutive size, air sacs are crucial because they are the only place in the human body where the life-giving oxygen that we breathe in is able to filter across thin membranes and enter the blood. When a person develops pneumonia, the walls of the air sacs thicken and inflammatory fluid builds up — thereby reducing the amount of oxygen that can be taken in. The lungs cannot do their job! Additionally, as ALL blood goes through the lungs at some point in the circulatory cycle, it is easy for the bacteria to get into the bloodstream. This condition is called “sepsis,” and it is extremely serious, often fatal. No wonder pneumonia’s old nickname was: “Captain of Death”!
Bacteria, those troublesome microscopic organisms that can destroy our tissues and overwhelm our immune system, are the classically-recognized cause of pneumonia. Viruses, though, can also bring about this condition, as can fungi and parasites. And some types of pneumonia aren’t produced by an infection at all; rather, the air sac inflammation is triggered by a non-infectious inflammatory process, such as autoimmune disorders (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis) or bad reactions to drugs or inhaled irritants. Whatever the cause, pneumonia’s interference with oxygen uptake and marked risk of sepsis makes it a treacherous scenario.
Pneumonia usually can be diagnosed by a simple history and physical examination. Classic symptoms of pneumonia include cough, fever, rapid breathing, blood-tinged sputum, and pain in the chest when taking a deep breath. On exam, the lung sounds produced by the thickened membranes and air sac fluid is easily detected by the doctor’s stethoscope. Sometimes, though, a chest x-ray is needed to verify the diagnosis; however this test is more commonly used after a course of medication to further assess a patient that has not improved as expected.
Treatment of pneumonia is comprised of eradicating the causative agent AND “pampering” the oxygen absorption system. Many times oral medication and rest at home are sufficient. But for severe pneumonia associated with low oxygen levels, hospitalization is required. Prior to the development of modern antibiotics, when rest was the only treatment tool, pneumonia was a leading cause of death. Nowadays the prognosis for this ailment is much better, but it is still a major killer in third world countries as well as in the very young and the very old populations of industrialized nations.
As with most things medical, the best treatment for pneumonia is prevention. Healthy lungs have a wonderful system for getting rid of invading infectors or irritants: the air transport tubes, or bronchioles, are lined with sticky mucous and tiny hairs called cilia. Bacteria, viruses and the like, that are inhaled stick to the mucous and are transported AWAY from air sacs by the little hairs that move in a wonderfully coordinated fashion like the legs on a centipede. Things that damage this system, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, dehydration, and extremely cold air, make it more likely that inhaled infectors will settle in and cause illness. Conversely, pneumonia risk is reduced by not smoking, limiting exposure to air pollutants, staying well-hydrated, and avoiding extended exposure to frigid temperatures. There are also several immunizations that help reduce pneumonia risk, too. These include “Pneumovax,” an antibacterial vaccine advised for young children and adults over 65, as well as “Fluvax” which minimizes viral pneumonia risk and is appropriate for almost all age groups.
Pneumonia has many possible causes, but it is universally considered a very serious affliction that endangers an essential organ system. There are many successful strategies to lessen the likelihood of pneumonia. However, should you develop symptoms suggestive of this treacherous illness, seek medical attention right away. Early diagnosis and treatment are advised; to delay that doctor’s visit may be catastrophic. Modern medicine has not yet fully conquered this formidable foe.