Why Pneumonia Can Be Dangerous

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Most of the time, pneumonia is a serious health issue but it is easily diagnosed and readily treated. Sometimes, though, it can be deadly.

Pneumonia is a lung condition usually caused by an infection. Most people recover in a couple of weeks when they get medical treatment. However, pneumonia causes more deaths worldwide in children younger than five than any other type of infection. Also, pneumonia from the influenza (flu) virus is a top-10 cause of death in the United States. 

When you know what the infection can do to your body, you can take steps to avoid serious complications and protect your health.

What Pneumonia Does to Your Lungs

Pneumonia causes the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs to fill with pus and fluid. If enough of them fill up with fluid, you can have trouble breathing. You may not be able to get enough fresh oxygen from your lungs into your circulation. The medical name for this is respiratory failure

Other complications from pneumonia include:

  • Lung abscess: A pocket of pus in your lung. Antibiotics may help, but you may need surgery to drain the pus.

  • Pleural effusion: Fluid collects in the layers of tissue between your lungs and affects your ability to breathe. You may need to have a tube inserted to drain the fluid.

  • Bacteremia and sepsis: Bacteremia occurs when the infection spreads from the lungs to the bloodstream. Sepsis occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to the bloodstream infection in such a way that it can lead to organ failure in severe cases. Individuals with any type of immune deficiency are at greatest risk. Doctors treat bacteremia and sepsis with intravenous (IV) antibiotics and a combination of supportive measures in case of organ failure.

People at Risk for Dangerous Pneumonia

You may be at higher risk for dangerous pneumonia if: 

  • Your immune system is weak from certain conditions or treatments, such as HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, or long-term treatment with steroids. Infants and very young children are also at risk because they have an immature immune system.

  • You have another long-term disease or health problem, such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

  • You are older than 65.

  • You smoke.

Diagnosing and Treating Pneumonia

Early diagnosis and treatment can make it less likely pneumonia will become dangerous. Your doctor may diagnose pneumonia from your symptoms, by listening to your lungs, and by doing a chest X-ray. Treatment will depend on what caused your pneumonia. Many different types of germs can cause pneumonia. So can breathing certain substances into your lungs. If tests show the cause is bacterial, you’ll receive antibiotics to clear the infection.

Pneumonia may come on suddenly. Or, it may develop after you have cold or flu symptoms. Contact your doctor right away if you experience any of these symptoms: 

  • Cough

  • Cough with discolored or bloody mucus

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Trouble breathing

  • Pain in your chest when you cough or take a deep breath

Other symptoms may include headache, loss of appetite, loss of energy and clammy skin.

If you start to develop respiratory failure, your lips or fingernails may turn blue and you may feel confused. You should get emergency care (call 911) if you have signs of respiratory failure. Oxygen therapy, breathing treatments, and intravenous antibiotics and fluids may be part of your overall treatment.

Prevention Is Key

These are the best ways to avoid getting pneumonia:

  • Wash your hands often.

  • Don’t smoke.

  • Eat well and get enough rest.

  • Get a flu shot every year. Flu is a common cause of pneumonia.

  • Ask your doctor whether you should get the pneumococcal vaccine.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 16
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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