Pneumonia is where one or both of the air spaces of the lungs get inflamed. This is usually triggered by an infection with a virus or bacteria, but in some cases can also be caused by irritation from things getting into the lungs that shouldn’t be there (food, fungus, vomit, smoke). In these cases, it is more accurate to call it pneumonitis.
Pneumonia is usually a bacterial infection. Seasonal flu, caused by the influenza virus, is a common cause of pneumonia when it circulates in the autumn and winter. This is one of the reasons a yearly flu vaccine is recommended for high-risk groups who are more susceptible to infections, or would be more unwell if they caught the flu.
Pneumonia usually leaves you feeling very tired, achy and generally unwell. You might get a cough, fever, your heart might be racing and you might get chest pain when you take a deep breath in, you might find breathing more difficult and get out of breath easily, and it may bring on confusion.
The infections that cause pneumonia can be contagious, so it would be best to wear a mask and avoid close contact with people if you suspect you may have pneumonia.
Some medical conditions put you at higher risk of being unwell with pneumonia, and you should seek out your doctor fast if you fall under this category. This includes those who smoke or having smoking-related diseases, such as COPD, those with asthma, those who are obese or very underweight, if you are immunocompromised either through a medical condition or medication, or if you have diabetes, are bedbound in the long-term or you are aged over 65.
Only doctors can prescribe antibiotics, and they will want to assess you first to make sure they get the diagnosis right.
The pharmacy can help with symptom relief. Paracetamol is the first choice for a fever, and you can take one or two tablets at 500mg each, every four to six hours (or a maximum of four times per day). If this isn’t quite enough, you can add ibuprofen.
Once you are well, if you haven’t had a flu jab yet, book one if you were offered it at your doctor but didn’t attend, or you can pay for one at your pharmacy. You need to be well for this, but it will help protect you from getting pneumonia caused by the influenza virus.
If you have any worrying symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fever or feeling severely unwell then you should seek urgent medical advice.
If you think you may have pneumonia, you should book an urgent visit with your doctor or seek urgent medical advice out of hours such as calling 111.
To be diagnosed with pneumonia, your doctor will examine you, checking your temperature, the oxygen levels in your tissues, and they'll listen to sounds in your chest. Blood tests and an X-ray may be performed if there is any doubt.
If you are reasonably well with pneumonia, this can be managed without a hospital visit. Your doctor will consider whether it’s a viral or bacterial pneumonia – bacteria respond to treatment with antibiotics but viruses don’t.
If your doctor thinks you’re very unwell, they may send you to hospital to get oxygen therapy and fluids and antibiotics via a drip.
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