Pneumonia warning signs and symptoms

During the winter months, influenza (also known as the flu) is an illness that gets a lot of attention. But it's also important to be alert for pneumonia, an infection that can pose a serious health risk to seniors, children and anyone with a compromised immune system. It's trickier for the average person to identify because it shares some of the same symptoms as the common cold and the flu.

A recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows that pneumonia was one of the top 10 reasons Canadians went to the emergency department (ED) in 2018.

Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the lungs. The air sacs in the lungs can fill with fluid or pus, causing cough with phlegm or pus, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of infectious organisms.

According to North York General Hospital Respirologist Dr. Adam Hutchinson-Jaffe, pneumonia can be caused by viruses (including the flu), bacteria and, less commonly, fungi. For patients, it's important to keep an eye on symptoms to help determine when you should seek medical attention.
It's important to keep on eye on symptoms to help determine when you should seek medical attention for pneumonia.
Although many of us suffer from a mild respiratory infection at some point, it's important to keep an eye on the severity of symptoms to help determine when you should seek medical attention.

“At some point many of us will suffer from a mild, viral upper-respiratory infection, such as the common cold, with only nasal congestion, sore throat and mild fevers,” says Dr. Hutchinson-Jaffe. “What you need to look out for are more severe symptoms of pneumonia, such as Infection in the lower respiratory tract, which typically has more severe and prolonged symptoms.”

Difference between the flu and pneumonia

  • Typically, patients with the flu have fevers, cough and myalgias (muscle pain) for several days. Those with bacterial pneumonia tends to have similar symptoms, but more often have green/yellow phlegm, shortness of breath, and sometimes chest pain.
  • Individuals should seek medical attention if symptoms, especially fevers and shortness of breath, persist more than several days, or if symptoms are severe (e.g. severe shortness of breath at rest or minimal activity).
  • Another important sign is if you experience an initial improvement of your symptoms, followed by worsening of symptoms, which may suggest a secondary bacterial pneumonia (bacterial pneumonia after the flu).

Treatment for bacterial pneumonia typically involves antibiotics, while viral pneumonia usually gets better without the need for medication. It's important to remember that antibiotics don't work for viral infections.

Four tips for preventing pneumonia

  1. Frequent hand washing
  2. Avoid contact with people known to have a respiratory infection (fevers and cough)
  3. Speak with your doctor regarding vaccinations against certain types of pneumonia
  4. Get lots of rest, eat healthy and exercise regularly.

March 6, 2019

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of The Pulse, North York General Hospital's community newsletter. Subscribe to receive 10 issues per year.

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