Pneumonia: symptoms, risks, and treatment

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs with potentially serious consequences. This is why early diagnosis and adequate treatment are essential.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE LUNGS?

Lungs are essential organs to life. Their main function is to provide oxygen to the bloodstream through respiration. This oxygen is then transported to different body cells, which allows them to function. Lungs also have the function of eliminating certain waste produced by the body, such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

The lungs are divided into sections, called "lobes". The right lung has three lobes and the left has two. Fresh air passes inside the lungs through a network of airways which includes the nose and bronchi.

At the end of this network, there are small air sacks, called “alveoli”, which ensure the exchange of oxygen and CO2 with the blood.

WHAT IS PNEUMONIA?

Pneumonia is a serious infection because it prevents the lungs from functioning normally. It causes an accumulation of fluid (pus, secretions) in the alveoli, thus preventing gas exchanges (oxygen and CO2) with the blood. The ensuing lack of oxygen can have harmful consequences by hindering the proper functioning of various cells.

The repercussions of pneumonia usually vary depending on various factors, including the patient’s age, health, and the degree of severity of the infection. While some patients can receive treatment at home, others must be hospitalized. In some specific cases, pneumonia can be fatal. Therefore, it is important to treat it quickly.

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF PNEUMONIA?

Pneumonia is most often caused by a viruses or bacteria. When an infection occurs, the body sets off an inflammatory response to fight off invaders. In some rare cases, pneumonia can be attributed to fungus or mold.

Some individuals are more at risk of suffering from pneumonia, among others:

  • children
  • elderly people
  • individuals who suffer from respiratory diseases (asthmacystic fibrosis, emphysema, etc.)
  • smokers
  • individuals whose immune system is weak due to various conditions (HIVdiabetescancer, etc.)

A recent viral infection, such as the flu or COVID-19 also predisposes one to pneumonia.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PNEUMONIA?

It is important to know how to recognize the symptoms of pneumonia, since early diagnosis increases the chances of healing. The following symptoms are among the ones to watch out for:

  • fever and chills
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • rapid breathing and pulse
  • coloured expectoration (sputum)
  • back or chest pain, especially when breathing in
  • fatigue or weakness
  • headaches

See a doctor immediately if these symptoms or any other unusual symptoms occur. Each year in Canada, individuals die from pneumonia.

HOW CAN PNEUMONIA BE TREATED?

If you suffer from pneumonia caused by bacteria, an antibiotic will be prescribed to you. This type of medication helps fight the bacteria in question if it is taken properly. Your pharmacist can be of great help by making sure that you take your medication as prescribed, by answering your questions and providing general advice.

If the pneumonia is caused by a virus, an antibiotic will be of no help. Therefore, the medical approach will consist of treating the symptoms. For instance, medication such as acetaminophen will be useful to relieve fever. In some cases, medications taken with inhalers (pumps) can be prescribed to dilate the respiratory tract or reduce inflammation of the lungs to make breathing easier. If this is the case, your pharmacist can advise you on how to use inhalers.

Cough syrups are not recommended in the case of pneumonia; by preventing coughing, cough syrups hamper the elimination of secretions present in the respiratory tract. If you are considering to use one, it is better to talk to your pharmacist first.

Can pneumonia be prevented?

Since pneumonia can be a complication of a viral infection such as the flu and COVID-19, all measures to prevent viral contamination can help reduce the risk of developing pneumonia. Handwashing, physical distancing, limiting contact with others and respiratory etiquette are therefore very helpful in this regard.

Smoking cessation is another good way to prevent pneumonia, especially for people living with lung disease (e.g., asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis). These respiratory conditions are associated with a higher risk of pneumonia. In addition, smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of developing pneumonia because smoking reduces the body's ability to fight infections. Your pharmacist can help you quit smoking.

Finally, there are vaccines to develop immunity (protection) against invasive pneumococcal infections. This is an accessible and effective way to protect yourself against this type of infection. The vaccine, when injected into a muscle, produces its full effect after a few weeks, but its action is not normally felt.

Ask your pharmacist about the benefits of receiving this type of vaccine depending on your age and situation. Vaccination against pneumococcus is a service that may be offered in pharmacies. To find a pharmacy branch affiliated with the Jean Coutu network offering this service, click here.

Don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist for additional information about pneumonia and its treatment.

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Pneumonia: symptoms, risks, and treatment

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs with potentially serious consequences. This is why early diagnosis and adequate treatment are essential.
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