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Pneumonia

Find specified Pneumonia information here.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is swelling (inflammation) of the tissue in one or both lungs. It's usually caused by a bacterial infection. At the end of the breathing tubes in your lungs are clusters of tiny air sacs. If you have pneumonia, these tiny sacs become inflamed and fill up with fluid.
Woman coughing

Pneumonia symptoms

The symptoms of pneumonia can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours, or they may come on more slowly over several days.
Common Pneumonia symptoms include:
a cough – which may be dry, or produce thick yellow, green, brown or blood-stained mucus (phlegm)
difficulty breathing – your breathing may be rapid and shallow, and you may feel breathless, even when resting
rapid heartbeat
high temperature
feeling generally unwell
sweating and shivering
loss of appetite
chest pain – which gets worse when breathing or coughing
Less common symptoms include:
coughing up blood (haemoptysis)
headaches
fatigue
feeling sick or being sick
wheezing
joint and muscle pain
feeling confused and disorientated, particularly in elderly people

When to see a healthcare practitioner

See a healthcare practitioner if you feel unwell and you have typical symptoms of pneumonia.
Seek urgent medical attention if you're experiencing severe symptoms, such as rapid breathing, chest pain or confusion.

Who's affected

Pneumonia can affect people of any age, but it's more common, and can be more serious, in certain groups of people, such as the very young or the elderly. People in these groups are more likely to need hospital treatment if they develop pneumonia. In the UK, pneumonia affects around 0.5 to 1% of adults each year. It's more widespread in autumn and winter.

What causes pneumonia

Pneumonia is usually the result of a pneumococcal infection, caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae.
Many different types of bacteria, including Haemophilus influenzae and Staphylococcus aureus, can also cause pneumonia, as well as viruses and, more rarely, fungi.
As well as bacterial pneumonia, other types include:
viral pneumonia – most commonly caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and sometimes influenza type A or B; viruses are a common cause of pneumonia in young children
aspiration pneumonia – caused by breathing in vomit, a foreign object, such as a peanut, or a harmful substance, such as smoke or a chemical
fungal pneumonia – rare in the UK and more likely to affect people with a weakened immune system
hospital-acquired pneumonia – pneumonia that develops in hospital while being treated for another condition or having an operation; people in intensive care on breathing machines are particularly at risk of developing ventilator-associated pneumonia

Risk groups

The following groups have an increased risk of developing pneumonia:
babies and very young children
elderly people
people who smoke
people with other health conditions, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, or a heart, kidney or liver condition
people with a weakened immune system – for example, as a result of a recent illness, such as flu, having HIV or AIDS, having chemotherapy, or taking medicine after an organ transplant

Diagnosing pneumonia

A healthcare practitioner may be able to diagnose pneumonia by asking about your symptoms and examining your chest. Further tests may be needed in some cases. Pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose because it shares many symptoms with other conditions, such as the common cold, bronchitis and asthma.
To help make a diagnosis, a healthcare practitioner may ask you:
whether you feel breathless or you're breathing faster than usual
how long you have had your cough, and whether you're coughing up mucus and what colour it is
if the pain in your chest is worse when you breathe in or out
A healthcare practitioner may also take your temperature and listen to your chest and back with a stethoscope to check for any crackling or rattling sounds.
They may also listen to your chest by tapping it. Lungs filled with fluid produce a different sound from normal healthy lungs.
If you have mild pneumonia, you probably will not need to have a chest X-ray or any other tests.
You may need a chest X-ray or other tests, such as a sputum (mucus) test or blood tests, if your pneumonia symptoms have not improved within 48 hours of starting treatment.

Treating pneumonia

Mild pneumonia can usually be treated at home by:
getting plenty of rest
taking antibiotics
drinking plenty of fluids
But people with a weakened immune system are less able to fight off infections, so it's best they avoid close contact with a person with pneumonia.
But people with a weakened immune system are less able to fight off infections, so it's best they avoid close contact with a person with pneumonia.
It's usually safe for someone with pneumonia to be around others, including family members.
For at-risk groups, pneumonia can be severe and may need to be treated in hospital.
This is because it can lead to serious complications, which in some cases can be fatal, depending on a person's health and age.

Complications of pneumonia

Complications of pneumonia are more common in young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes.
Possible complications of pneumonia include:
pleurisy – where the thin linings between your lungs and ribcage (pleura) become inflamed, which can lead to respiratory failure
a lung abscess – a rare complication that's mostly seen in people with a serious pre-existing illness or a history of severe alcohol misuse
blood poisoning (sepsis) – also a rare but serious complication

Preventing pneumonia

Although most cases of pneumonia are bacterial and are not passed on from one person to another, ensuring good standards of hygiene will help prevent germs spreading.
For example, you should:
cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or tissue when you cough or sneeze
throw away used tissues immediately – germs can live for several hours after they leave your nose or mouth
wash your hands regularly to avoid transferring germs to other people or objects
people with a weakened immune system, which could be the result of an underlying condition or a side effect of a treatment like steroids
A healthy lifestyle can also help prevent pneumonia. For example, you should avoid smoking as it damages your lungs and increases the chance of infection.
Excessive and prolonged alcohol misuse also weakens your lungs' natural defences against infections, making you more vulnerable to pneumonia.
People at high risk of pneumonia should be offered the pneumococcal vaccine and flu vaccine.