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How Pneumonia Can Get Complicated


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After Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came down with pneumonia last Sunday, it seemed all of the U.S. started talking about the illness. What is pneumonia, anyway? And just how serious is it? Oklahomans have a history of higher-than-average pneumonia rates and certain groups are even more susceptible. So, as fall sets in and sicknesses begin to spread, it’s important to know the signs of pneumonia. Read below to see how complications from pneumonia can lead to much more serious issues.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can affect individuals at any age, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Caused by viruses, bacteria and fungi, pneumonia can typically be treated with medicine or prevented with a vaccine. The influenza virus, commonly known as the flu, can evolve into pneumonia, as can RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Signs of pneumonia include a cough, fever and difficulty breathing. Did you know? Pneumonia is the world’s leading cause of death in children younger than five years old.

Pneumonia in Oklahoma

In recent years, Oklahoma’s rates of death from both pneumonia and influenza have been above the national average. This correlates with higher-than-average smoking rates and other statewide health issues, as individuals with existing health problems and smokers are more susceptible to pneumonia infections.

Who is most susceptible?

While smokers are at a higher risk of contracting pneumonia because their lung health is already compromised, the two groups with the highest risk of infection are children younger than 2 and adults older than 65. Anyone experiencing difficulty breathing, a persistent fever above 102 degrees or a persistent cough should see a doctor to check for pneumonia. Chest pain can also indicate pneumonia, although it might also be a sign of something more serious, so should never be ignored. Other groups at extremely high risk for pneumonia include:
  • Those with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system
  • Individuals receiving chemotherapy or taking immune-suppressing medication

Dangerous pneumonia complications

Unfortunately, pneumonia doesn’t always run a predictable course. Because of the nature of the infection, it can last much longer than the flu and sometimes evolves into a more severe or more complicated infection. Potential complications of pneumonia include:
  • Pleural effusion (fluid accumulation around the lungs). This occurs when pneumonia causes infectious fluid build-up between the layers of tissue lining the lungs and chest cavity. Pleural effusion can require hospitalization for drainage through a chest tube or for surgery to remove fluid.
  • Bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream). Bacteria that enter the bloodstream from pneumonia-infected lungs can spread the infection to other organs, which could lead to organ failure if not treated quickly.
  • Walking Pneumonia. This is a strain of pneumonia caused by an atypical kind of bacteria that is extremely common in children and in crowded environments like college dorms and nursing homes. The same bacteria can also cause common chest colds and sore throats, but when the lungs become more seriously affected, treatment may be required.
  • Ventilator-assisted breathing. For those with pre-existing lung disease or respiratory issues, pneumonia can further hinder the body’s ability to breathe in sufficient oxygen. Sometimes, a ventilator is required to assist with breathing while the infected lungs heal.
  • Lung abscess. When pus forms in a lung cavity, an abscess can occur. These can typically be treated with antibiotics but occasionally require surgery or drainage with a long needle or tube to remove the pus.
  • Legionnaires’ Disease. This type of pneumonia is also caused by an atypical bacteria and may not respond as well to common pneumonia treatments. This infection is not contracted by person-to-person contact, but rather through inhalation, so smokers and older adults with weakened immune systems are especially at risk. About 10 percent of those who contract Legionnaires’ Disease die from infection-related complications.
Pneumonia is not something to be taken lightly, especially during times of year when infection spreads easily. It’s important to take extra care around babies, seniors and those with compromised immune systems. Practice good hygiene, and remember to wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season to help avoid the transfer of bacteria that can cause pneumonia. Adults older than 65 should be vaccinated with both pneumococcal vaccines.

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