What is Pneumonia

Older man blowing nose

Every year during cold and flu season, we hear about how to tell if your sniffles and sore throat mean you have a cold or the flu. (This handy chart from the CDC is good to bookmark for the coming winter!) Although there’s lots of information out there about how to identify and treat these two illnesses, what if your respiratory symptoms aren’t being caused by a cold or the flu at all? Pneumonia causes many similar symptoms, but can be far more serious if left untreated.

Simply put, pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Common signs of pneumonia include cough, fever, and difficulty breathing. Doctors often treat pneumonia with medications, and vaccines can prevent some forms of pneumonia. It can be a complication of both colds and the flu, and is often caused by cold or flu germs getting into the lungs.

The Difference Between Cold, Flu and Pneumonia

While all cause unpleasant respiratory symptoms, there are important differences between the three illnesses that you should recognize. Having a cold is no fun, but it’s generally mild and will go away on its own. Flu and pneumonia, on the other hand, can both cause life-threatening complications and land you in the hospital if you don’t seek treatment as soon as possible. But unlike the flu, which is always caused by a virus, pneumonia is more often than not a bacterial infection that attacks your lungs. (Viral pneumonia does exist, but is much less common.) Although pneumonia can feel a lot worse than the flu, the good news is that bacteria is easier to fight with medicine than a virus. If you see your doctor as soon as you begin experiencing symptoms, bacterial pneumonia can be treated effectively, and relatively quickly, with antibiotics. So what are those symptoms?

Pneumonia Symptoms

Much like cold and flu, pneumonia can cause a stuffy nose, sore throat, body aches, fever, and chills. What sets it apart are symptoms that are much more severe and get worse over time. Pneumonia feels a lot like the flu, except that it may also include:

  • Fever up to 105* F
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Feeling like you can’t catch your breath
  • Coughing up green, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Stabbing chest pain that may get worse when you cough or breathe deeply
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sweating and clamminess
  • Headaches

Children and the elderly may also experience confusion.

About the Pneumonia Vaccine

You may not have heard about the pneumonia vaccine. Getting a pneumonia vaccine may help protect against lung infection in older adults and persons with chronic health conditions. Those most at risk for pneumonia include:

  • Adults aged 19 and older who:
    • smoke
    • have chronic medical conditions such as HIV and kidney failure
  • Adults older than age 65
  • Children younger than age 2 with signs and symptoms
  • People with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the pneumonia vaccine is a good choice for you, as well as any medical questions you may have about pneumonia.

We hope these tips help you better prepare for cold, flu and pneumonia season! With the right preparation, you can stay healthy all winter long.

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