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Bacterial Pneumonia Explained


Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. People with pneumonia usually suffer from coughing, mucus production, fever, shortness of breath, and/or chest pain. The body’s immune system usually keeps bacteria from infecting the lungs. In bacterial pneumonia, bacteria reproduce in the lungs, while the body tries to fight off the infection. This response to bacterial invaders is called inflammation. When the inflammation occurs in the alveoli (the microscopic air sacs in the lungs) they fill with fluid. The lungs become less elastic and cannot take oxygen into the blood or remove carbon dioxide from the blood as efficiently as usual.

When the alveoli don’t work efficiently, the lungs are less able to extract oxygen from the air. This causes the shortness of breath, which is one of the most common symptoms of pneumonia. Inflammation is the body’s attempt to destroy infection, and causes many of the other symptoms of bacterial pneumonia, including fever and chest pain. Pneumonia can be very serious, because it directly interferes with the body’s ability to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Bacterial Pneumonia Causes

Most pneumonia is caused by bacteria or a virus. Pneumonia from any cause can occur at any age, but people in certain age groups are at higher risk for certain types of pneumonia.

The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia is a type of bacteria known as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Haemophilus influenzae, Chlamydia pneumoniae, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, and Legionella pneumophila are some other major bacteria that cause pneumonia.

People who inhale toxic materials can injure the lungs and cause chemical pneumonia. This is more accurately referred to as chemical pneumonitis, since the process is mainly due to inflammation not from an infectious source.

Fungi can also cause pneumonia. In certain areas of the United States, specific fungi are well known. Coccidioidomycosis, usually seen in the Southwest, is a type of fungal infection that causes a pneumonia called “San Joaquin fever” or “Valley fever.” Histoplasmosis (seen primarily in the Midwest) and blastomycosis (seen primarily in the Southeast) are other fungal diseases that cause pneumonias.

The most common way you catch pneumonia is to aspirate bacteria from the upper airway, usually the oral cavity. Other ways to catch pneumonia can be by breathing in infected air droplets from someone who has pneumonia. In some cases, the bacteria can be generated by an improperly cleaned air conditioner or Jacuzzi. Yet another source of infection in the lungs is spread of an infection from somewhere else in the body, such as the kidney. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream from any source and be deposited in the lungs, resulting in pneumonia.

The risk of catching pneumonia is determined by the specific bacteria, virus, or fungus, the number of organisms the person inhales, and the body’s ability to fight infections.

Bacterial Pneumonia Signs and Symptoms

Doctors often refer to typical and atypical pneumonias, based on the signs and symptoms of the condition. This can help to predict the type of bacteria causing the pneumonia, the duration of the illness, and the optimal treatment method.

Typical pneumonia comes on very quickly.

•Typical pneumonia usually results in a high fever and shaking chills.
•Typical pneumonia usually leads to the production of yellow or brown sputum
when coughing.
•There may be chest pain, which is usually worse with breathing or coughing. The chest also may be sore when it is touched or pressed.
•Typical pneumonia can cause shortness of breath, especially if the person has any chronic lung conditions such as asthma or emphysema.
•Because chest pain also can be a sign of other serious medical conditions, do not try to diagnose self-diagnose.
•Older people can have confusion or a change in their mental abilities as a sign of pneumonia or other infection.

Atypical pneumonia has a gradual onset.

•It is commonly referred to as “walking pneumonia.”
•Sometimes it follows another illness in the days to weeks before the pneumonia.
•The fever is usually lower and shaking chills are less likely.
•There may be headaches, body aches, or joint pain.
•Coughing may be dry or produce only a little sputum. The person may not have any chest pain.
•Abdominal pain may be present.
•There may be other symptoms, such as feeling tired or weak.
•Often the abnormalities on the chest X-ray appear worse than what the patient appears to present.

When to Seek Medical Attention

•If you have a fever and cough up yellow, green, or brown sputum, make an appointment with your doctor.
•If you have chest pain or confusion you should seek emergency care.
•If you have shortness of breath you should always seek emergency care. Shortness of breath is not simply the feeling that you can’t take a full breath; shortness of breath means that you cannot take in enough air to meet your body’s needs. It is a potentially serious symptom and always requires a visit to an emergency department, no matter how healthy you are.
•If you have chest pain or confusion you should seek emergency care.
•You are at higher risk of developing pneumonia if you have the following:
◦a chronic health problem, such as diabetes,
◦a poor immune system because of HIV, AIDS, steroid use, or immune-suppressant medications (people with organ transplants take these medications),
◦diseased or damaged lungs, such as with asthma or emphysema,
◦are very young or very old,
◦or you’ve had your spleen removed.