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Pneumonia: causes, symptoms, treatment

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Pneumonia is where one or both of the lungs' air spaces become inflamed. An infection with a virus or bacteria usually triggers this, but in some cases it 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 in the autumn and winter, caused by the influenza virus, is another common cause of pneumonia. 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 or 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.

What to do in pneumonia

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 promptly if you fall under this category. This includes those who smoke or have smoking-related diseases, such as COPD, those with asthma, those who are obese or significantly underweight, those who are immunocompromised either through a medical condition or medication, or if you have diabetes, are bedbound in the long-term, or are aged over 65.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Only doctors can prescribe antibiotics and will want to assess you first to ensure they confirm the diagnosis.

The pharmacy can help with symptom relief. Acetaminophen is the first choice for a fever, and you can take one or two tablets at 500 mg 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 shot, get 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.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any worrisome symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, or feeling severely unwell, 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 after hours by calling 911.

What will the doctor do

To be diagnosed with pneumonia, your doctor will examine you, checking your temperature, 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 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 the hospital to get oxygen therapy and fluids, and antibiotics via an intravenous drip.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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