In the midst of cold and flu season, you also want to guard yourself against pneumonia. It’s a common disease with about a million cases a year requiring medical care. But it's also easy to mistake for other medical problems.
Pneumonia is really just a lung infection, says Dr. Carolee Estelle, associate chief of Infection Prevention at Parkland Hospital and assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“[Pneumonia is] an infection of the lower part of the respiratory tract, deep down in the lungs. It can be caused by bacteria. It can be caused by viruses. It can be caused by fungi, a variety of different kinds of organisms,” she said.
Cases of pneumonia range from mild to very serious. About 50,000 cases a year result in death, usually involving people with underlying conditions. However, Estelle says pneumonia can be treated. It can also be prevented with good hygiene and personal health care.
How pneumonia can develop from cold or flu: There are situations where people will have the flu or, potentially, an upper respiratory tract infection, and they’ll get better. Then, they’ll get worse all of a sudden with very high fever, phlegm and fatigue. That can be bacterial pneumonia that can develop after they’ve had the flu. We call that a "super infection."
How pneumonia develops on its own: There are also situations where influenza or the respiratory syncytial virus or RSV can progress and become a pneumonia in and of themselves as well. That’s little bit less common. You can also have pneumonia, bacterial or otherwise. Bacteria can get into the lungs and set up an infection without someone having a prior viral infection.
How serious can pneumonia become: It ranges from mild — where people can go about their usual business — to severe infection. People who get hospitalized can even wind up in the intensive care unit on ventilatory support. In the United States, about a million people per year get pneumonia that requires them to go seek medical care, and about 50,000 a year can potentially die from it. They're usually people with underlying conditions like asthma, COPD, heart disease like heart failure, or anyone who has an immune system that’s not functioning particularly well.
- Cough, including one that brings up greenish, yellow phlegm, sometimes even bloody sputum
- Night sweats
When to see a doctor: When you have a fever and the cough with phlegm. The key — if you had the flu — to know you’ve developed pneumonia would be if you started to feel better and then you got worse again. The other thing is that phlegm development, that mucus, bringing that up is also common with pneumonia.
- Hand hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly and often.
- Cover your cough and your sneeze, preferably coughing into your elbow or into a tissue.
- At home, wash and disinfect surfaces you touch all the time.
- If you have chronic medical conditions such as COPD and diabetes, keep those under control to keep your body as healthy as possible.
- Quit smoking.
- Vaccinations for pneumonia: Pneumovax (for adults) and Prevnar 13 (for adults and children)
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.