Last September, Renisha Hodge, 63, left work early one day feeling as if she had been beaten with a ton of bricks–fever, chills, wheezing, a tightness in her chest and a cough that was so rough her ribs ached. The social worker felt her flu-like symptoms coming on for a couple of days but figured she could handle the illness with some tried-and-true home remedies. Instead of heading home, Renisha called her internist and asked if he could see her that afternoon. Luckily for her, he was able to get her in for a check-up. The diagnosis, pneumonia.  “I felt blessed and favored that my doctor could see me on such short notice and thankful that I was treatable,” says the Brooklyn, New York resident.

Pneumonia is way more common than you think about 3 million folks in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year. An average of 60,000 people die as a result of the condition. As a matter of fact, Blacks have a higher incidence of the respiratory infection than all other ethnic groups except for American Indians. Anyone can get pneumonia, young and old and its symptoms can vary from mild to severe. If you’re over age 50 however, your risk of being hospitalized after getting the lung infection is 8x greater than younger adults aged 18-49. The illness can strike you at any time and suddenly come over you with little warning.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs and is brought on by a bacteria, virus or fungi. When someone contracts the illness, the airspaces in the lungs become inflamed mostly due to an infection. One-third of the reported cases of the condition are caused by viruses, the most common one being the flu. There are other viruses that cause the illness as well and these include respiratory syncytial (RSV), rhinovirus, herpes simplex virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and many more.

Is there a pneumonia season?

Even though you can come down with pneumonia at any point during the year, it is pretty common during the cold and flu season which is fall and winter.

What are the common symptoms?

Being that pneumonia is usually a complication of a cold or flu,  symptoms will be much like the flu—a dry cough, fever, chills, headache, chills, general malaise, loss of appetite, weakness, and pain. Folks who develop viral pneumonia can progress to bacterial pneumonia which is more dangerous and can result in a very high fever (105 degrees), rapid pulse, intense sweating, labored breathing. In people who are older, pneumonia can cause mental confusion.

What is walking pneumonia?

Walking pneumonia is a mild case of pneumonia. It is often caused by a virus or the mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria. When you have walking pneumonia, your symptoms may not be as severe, or last as long as someone, who has a more serious case of the respiratory infection. You probably won’t need bed rest or a hospital stay when you have this form of pneumonia.

What treatments are available?

A chest x-ray is usually the route to go when diagnosing pneumonia. A healthcare practitioner might run blood and mucus tests to determine if whether the infection is bacterial, viral or a fungal organism. Upon examining all of the test results and depending upon the type of pneumonia you have and its severity, a doctor might prescribe anything from antibiotics, antivirals, to even the use of an oxygen tank to increase oxygen in the blood. Many people stricken pneumonia can be treated right in their homes by sticking to a regimen that should help put them on the road to recovery:

  • Taking in plenty of fluids to loosen and help bring up phlegm
  • Getting lots of much-needed rest so that the body can repair itself
  • Taking an OTC fever reducer like Motrin, Advil or Tylenol
  • Making sure you take your medication exactly as prescribed

How can you prevent pneumonia?

Since pneumonia can be a complication of the flu, a smart defense strategy would be to get an annual flu shot. For folks who are in a high risk category like those over age 65, or who have compromised immune systems with illnesses such as COPD, heart disease, diabetes or HIV, there are three types of pneumonia vaccinations that are currently available—PCV13 or pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, PPSV23 or pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine and Hib or Haemophilus influenza type b vaccine.

What about recovery?

For older adults, recovery after a bout with pneumonia might take a while depending on its severity. It might very well take weeks before you feel like your old self again and are able to get around and jump back into your regular routine. Rest is key to gaining your strength back and making sure you’re fully cured in order to avoid a relapse. If antibiotics were the prescribed course of action to treat your type of pneumonia, your physician may want to take another x-ray after you finished your meds to confirm that your chest is clear.