Questions and Answers: Bacterial Pneumonia

1. What is bacterial pneumonia?

Bacterial (bak-TEE-ree-al) pneumonia (noo-MOH-nyah) is when an infection (in-FECK-shun) causes swelling and fluid in the lungs. The fluid in the lungs may make it hard for you to breathe. People with bacterial pneumonia can have symptoms that range from mild to very severe (bad).

2. What causes bacterial pneumonia?

Many different kinds of bacteria (germs) can cause bacterial pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia usually starts after a cold, the flu, or another infection has weakened your immune (i-MUN) system. Your immune system helps your body fight off illness. Healthy bacteria normally live in your throat (and other body areas) without causing any problems. These normal bacteria may move to your lungs and cause pneumonia if your immune system is not working right.

You may get pneumonia-causing bacteria by breathing it in, such as breathing the air around someone who is coughing. You may get sick from touching something that has bacteria on it, such as a dirty tissue.

You may be more likely to get pneumonia if you have a lung disease such as asthma or emphysema (em-fi-SEE-mah). You are more likely to get pneumonia and other lung infections if you smoke. Having a long-term medical condition (such as heart failure) may also increase your risk of getting pneumonia. If you have to stay in bed for a long time, such as after an injury or surgery, you have a greater chance of getting pneumonia. Your risk of getting pneumonia increases as you age. You may be more likely to get pneumonia if you have a long-term drinking problem (alcoholism), or if you have a poor diet.

3. What are the signs and symptoms of bacterial pneumonia?

Pneumonia can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe.

Common signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:

Frequent coughing. Your cough may be dry, or it may bring up mucus from your lungs. This mucus may be green, yellow, or white, and may have streaks of blood in it.

You may feel tired and have body aches. Your nose may feel runny or stuffy.

You may have a fever or chills.

You may have shortness of breath or noisy breathing (such as a high-pitched wheezing).

You may have chest pain when you cough or take a deep breath.

Signs that your pneumonia may be serious :

If you have pneumonia and have any of the following signs, contact a caregiver right away.

Your heartbeat or breathing (while resting) seems much faster than normal.

Severe dizziness, fainting, or having new trouble thinking (confusion).

You feel like you cannot get enough air, or your lips or fingernails turn dusky or blue.

Special signs to watch for in an older person:

Signs and symptoms of pneumonia may be hard to notice in an older person. An older person may have only a mild fever. They may have pain in the upper part of their abdomen (belly). Sometimes the only signs of pneumonia in an older person are new weakness, new confusion (trouble thinking), or breathing faster than normal. Pneumonia can become serious very quickly in older people. If you or someone you care for is an older person and has any of these signs, tell a caregiver right away.

4. How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Your caregiver may ask you many questions about your signs and symptoms. Tell your caregiver if you have been around any sick people or animals, or if you have traveled recently. Your caregiver will examine you and listen to your heart and lungs through a stethoscope (STETH-oh-skohp). You may need tests such as blood tests or a chest x-ray.

5. How is pneumonia treated?

Most people with pneumonia are treated at home. Older adults or people with other health problems may need to stay in the hospital. Some things that may help you recover (get better) from pneumonia include:

While you are sick, do not drink alcohol. Alcohol dulls your urge to cough and sneeze. When you have pneumonia, you need to be able to cough and sneeze to clear your air passages. Alcohol also causes your body to lose fluid. This can make the mucus in your lungs thicker and harder to cough up.

Stay away from smoke, dust, and fumes (strong smells). Do not smoke, and do not allow others to smoke around you. Avoid working around chemicals, fumes, or dust. Air pollution and smoke from fireplaces or forest fires in your area may also make it harder for you to breathe.

Get plenty of rest. You may feel like resting more. Slowly start to do more each day. Rest when you feel it is needed.

Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition can help your body fight illness. Eat a variety of healthy foods every day. Your diet should include fruits, vegetables, breads, and protein (such as chicken, fish, and beans). Dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and ice cream) can sometimes cause more mucus. Ask your caregiver if you should decrease your intake of dairy products while you are coughing up mucus.

Drink enough liquids. Be sure to drink enough liquids every day. Most people should drink at least eight (8 ounce) cups of water a day. This helps to keep your air passages moist and better able to get rid of germs and other irritants.

Use a humidifier or vaporizer. Use a cool mist humidifier or a vaporizer to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe, and help decrease your cough. Be sure to clean your humidifier with soap and water every day to prevent germs from growing in it.

Use medicines the right way. Medicines, when used correctly, may help you feel better.

Antibiotics : This medicine is given to fight or prevent an infection caused by bacteria. Always take your antibiotics exactly as ordered by your caregiver.

Keep taking this medicine until it is completely gone, even if you feel better. Stopping antibiotics without your caregiver's OK may make the medicine unable to kill all of the germs. Never "save" antibiotics or take leftover antibiotics that were given to you for another illness.

Cough medicine:

You may need a cough medicine to help loosen phlegm in your lungs and make it easier to cough up. This type of cough medicine is called an expectorant. Drink plenty of water if you are taking an expectorant type of cough medicine. Coughing the phlegm out of your lungs can help you breathe easier.

A type of cough medicine that decreases your urge to cough is called a cough suppressant. If your cough is producing mucus, do not take a cough suppressant unless your caregiver tells you to. For example, your caregiver may suggest that you take a cough suppressant at night so you can rest.

Inhalers and nebulizers: Your caregiver may give you one or more inhalers to help you breathe easier and cough up mucus. An inhaler gives your medicine in a mist form so that you can breathe it into your lungs.

This type of medicine may also be given using a nebulizer, or "breathing treatment machine". Using inhalers and nebulizers the right way takes practice. Ask your caregiver for more information about using inhalers and nebulizers correctly.

Oxygen: You may need extra oxygen while you are recovering from pneumonia. It is usually given through nasal prongs (short, thin tubes in your nose). Or, it may be given through a plastic mask over your mouth and nose.

Over-the-counter medicine: Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are the kind that you can buy without an order (prescription) from a caregiver. OTC medicine may be used for many reasons, such as decreasing pain or a high body temperature (fever). These medicines are safe for most people to use and can help you feel better when used correctly. However, they can cause serious problems when they are not used correctly.

People using certain other medicines or that have certain medical conditions are at a higher risk for problems. Using too much, or using these medicines for longer than the label says can also cause problems. Follow directions on the label carefully. If you have questions, talk to your caregiver.

Steroids : Steroid medicine may help to open your air passages so you can breathe easier. Do not stop taking this medicine without your caregiver's OK. Stopping on your own can cause problems.

4. How can I decrease my chances of getting pneumonia?

Quit smoking. Do not smoke, and do not allow others to smoke around you. Smoking increases your risk of lung infections and other health problems. Smoking also makes it harder for you to get better after being ill. Talk to your caregiver if you need help quitting smoking.

Vaccines: Ask your caregiver if you should get vaccinated against the flu or pneumonia. The best time to get a flu shot is in October or November. Flu shots are good for one year. Pneumonia shots are good for five to six years. Ask your caregiver which vaccinations are right for you.

Avoid spreading germs:

You can decrease your chance of getting lung infections and other illnesses by doing the following:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing hand lotion or gel with you when you leave the house. You can use the lotion or gel to clean your hands when there is no water available.

Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.

Always cover your mouth when you cough. It is best to cough into a tissue or your shirtsleeve, rather than into your hand. People around you should also cover their mouths when they cough.

Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.

Risks : Pneumonia can be serious, even life threatening. Pneumonia is even more dangerous for people over the age of 50, and people with immune system or other health problems. If your pneumonia is very bad, you may need to stay in the hospital. It may take a long time to get better after having pneumonia. The sooner your pneumonia is treated, the less chance you have of problems.

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