Pneumonia: your lungs under attack

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and it can be life-threatening. When you consider the fundamental importance of your lungs to breathe and receive one of the key elements of life - oxygen - anything that threatens them has to be taken seriously. About one in a hundred people develop pneumonia, and each year in England & Wales it claims around 20,000 lives*.

What happens when you're infected?

Every hour of the day and night, your body is usually able to filter out any nasties in the air you breathe, and prevent infections from reaching the lungs. Even if germs do make it that far, or an infection spreads from another part of the body, most healthy people have the defences to deal with it.

If you develop pneumonia, your lungs have been infected by bacteria, viruses or fungi. Your alveoli - vital tiny air sacs where oxygen is passed into the blood - star t to fill up with fluid and pus.

This disrupts the normal process of gas exchange in your lungs, and stops oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. As a result, breathing becomes difficult and, if left untreated, your oxygen levels can become dangerously low. This can lead to confusion, coma, heart failure and eventually death.

ScientistWhat are these bacteria?

One of the most common pneumonia causing bacteria is called Streptococcus pneumonia or Pneumococcus, but there is now a vaccine for it.

Others include the bacteria haemophilus and staphylococcus. More unusual bacteria can also be found, especially in people with underlying problems with their immune systems.

Bacterial pneumonia usually has more severe symptoms, but viral pneumonia, caused by the flu virus, can also be life-threatening.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone at any age can contract pneumonia, although in general it is vulnerable people - small children, the elderly and those with underlying health issues - who are most at risk. In general, healthy people usually have the defences to fight off viral infection on their own, and can overcome bacterial pneumonia with the aid of antibiotics.

However, people with chronic disease (especially lung disease such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or heart disease), or those with compromised immune systems, are less likely to respond to treatment or be able to cope with the stress on the organs caused by pneumonia. They are more likely to develop serious complications.

Patient with nurseAvoiding pneumonia

There are some basic steps you can take to lower your risk of contracting pneumonia. Although not as contagious as flu, it can be picked up through the coughs and sneezes of infected people.

Avoid those situations if possible, wash your hands often and thoroughly, and throw away used tissues straight away. Giving up smoking will also reduce your risk of pneumonia. If you're in a high-risk group, your GP may also recommend a vaccination against pneumonia and flu. There are two vaccines that can help prevent pneumonia caused by the S.pneumoniae infection:

  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV). This is for anyone at high risk, or over 65, and protects against 23 strains.
  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV). This is for children under the age of two, with the first dose given at two months old, protecting against 13 strains. Children also receive HiB vaccines to protect them as part of the childhood immunisation schedule. Vaccines are available from your GP, private clinics and some pharmacists. You should also consider having an influenza vaccination, as pneumonia can develop as a complication of flu.

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