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Overview of Pneumonia

by Sanjay Sethi, MD

Pneumonia is an infection of the small air sacs of the lungs (alveoli) and the tissues around them.

  • Pneumonia is one of the most common causes of death worldwide.

  • Often, pneumonia is the final illness that causes death in people who have other serious, chronic diseases.

  • Some types of pneumonia can be prevented by immunization.

In the United States, about 2 to 3 million people develop pneumonia each year, and 60,000 of them die. In the United States, pneumonia, along with influenza, is the eighth leading cause of death and is the leading infectious cause of death. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death among infections that develop while people are hospitalized and is the most common overall cause of death in developing countries. Pneumonia is also one of the most common serious infections in children and in infants, with an annual incidence of 34 to 40 cases per 1,000 children in Europe and North America.

Causes of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is not a single illness but rather many different ones, each caused by a different microscopic organism—whether it is a bacterium, virus, fungus, or parasite. Bacterial and viral pneumonias are much more common than fungal or parasitic pneumonias. The specific organisms vary depending on the person's age, health, location, and other factors.

Did You Know...

  • Pneumonia is not a single illness but many different illnesses, each caused by a different microorganism.

The airways and lungs are constantly exposed to microscopic organisms. Some organisms are present in the nose and throat almost all the time, and people regularly inhale these organisms. These organisms are readily dealt with by the lungs' defense mechanisms, which include

  • The cough reflex, which helps expel mucus and foreign substances

  • The cells lining the lung passageways, which prevent microorganisms from invading the lungs and which push mucus and foreign substances upward so that they can be coughed out

  • Proteins made by lungs cells, which attack microorganisms

  • White blood cells within the lungs, which are part of the normal immune system and which also attack microorganisms

Pneumonia develops when

  • Defense mechanisms are not functioning correctly

  • A large amount of bacteria is inhaled and overwhelms normal defenses

  • A particularly infective organism is introduced

Usually pneumonia starts after organisms are inhaled into the lungs, but sometimes the infection is carried to the lungs by the bloodstream or organisms move to the lungs directly from a nearby infection.

Categories of pneumonia

Where people are when pneumonia develops is important because different organisms tend to be present in different settings. Organisms in some settings, such as hospitals, are typically more dangerous and more resistant to drugs than organisms present in other settings. Also, people in some settings are more likely to have disorders that make them more likely to develop pneumonia. Some categories of pneumonia include

Other categories of pneumonia include

  • Aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when particles (for example, saliva, food, or vomit) from the mouth are inhaled and are not cleared from the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia can occur in people with swallowing difficulties, such as people who have had strokes, and in people with decreased level of consciousness due to sedating drugs, alcohol, or other reasons

  • Obstructive pneumonia, which occurs when a blockage of the air passages in the lungs (such as from a tumor) causes bacteria to accumulate behind the blockage

"Walking" pneumonia is a nonmedical term used to describe a mild case of community-acquired pneumonia that does not require bedrest or hospitalization. Some people might even feel well enough to go to work and participate in other daily activities.

Risk factors for pneumonia

Pneumonia may occur after surgery, particularly abdominal surgery, or an injury (trauma), particularly a chest injury, because the pain of those conditions keeps people from breathing deeply and from coughing. If people do not breathe deeply and cough, microorganisms are more likely to remain in the lungs and cause infection. Other people who do not breathe deeply and cough include those who are debilitated, bedridden, paralyzed, or unconscious. Such people are also at risk of pneumonia.

Another critical feature is whether the pneumonia occurs in a healthy person or in someone who has an impaired immune system. A person who has an impaired immune system is far more likely to contract pneumonia, including pneumonia caused by unusual bacteria and viruses and even fungi or parasites. Also, a person whose immune system is impaired may not respond as well to treatment as someone whose immune system is healthy. People who may have an impaired immune system include those who

  • Use certain drugs (such as corticosteroids or chemotherapy drugs)

  • Have certain diseases, such as AIDS or various types of cancer

  • Have an undeveloped immune system, as is the case of infants and toddlers

  • Have an immune system that is worn down by severe illness, as is often the case with older people

Other conditions that predispose people to pneumonia include alcoholism, cigarette smoking, diabetes, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease because these disorders can weaken the lungs' defense mechanisms or the immune system.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

The most common symptom of pneumonia is

  • Cough that produces sputum (thick or discolored mucus)

Other common pneumonia symptoms include

  • Chest pain

  • Chills

  • Fever

  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms may vary, however, depending on how extensive the disease is and which organism is causing it.

Symptoms vary even more in infants and older people. Fever may not occur. Chest pain may not occur, or people may not be able to communicate that they have chest pain. Sometimes the only symptom is rapid breathing or a sudden refusal to eat. Sometimes sudden confusion may be the only sign of pneumonia in an older person.

Complications of pneumonia

Common complications include

  • Low oxygen levels in the bloodstream

  • Life-threatening low blood pressure

  • Lung abscess or empyema

A severe pneumonia can prevent oxygen from getting to the bloodstream, causing people to feel short of breath. Low levels of oxygen can be life threatening.

The microorganism causing the pneumonia can enter the bloodstream, or the body's response to the infection can be excessive, resulting in decreased blood pressure that can be life threatening, a condition called sepsis.

Some pneumonias can lead to lung abscess or empyema. An abscess is a pocket of pus within tissue. A lung abscess forms when a small area of the lung dies and a collection of pus forms in its place. An empyema is a collection of pus between the lung and the chest wall.

Diagnosis of Pneumonia

  • A doctor's examination

  • Usually a chest x-ray

  • Sometimes testing to identify the microorganism causing the pneumonia

A doctor or nurse checks for pneumonia by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Pneumonia usually produces distinctive sounds. These abnormal sounds are caused by narrowing of airways or filling of the normally air-filled parts of the lungs with inflammatory cells and fluid, a process called consolidation. In most cases, the diagnosis of pneumonia is confirmed with a chest x-ray.

In people who are sick enough to require hospitalization, doctors often test specimens of sputum, blood, and urine in an attempt to identify the organism causing pneumonia. In very sick people or those with a known problem of the immune system, doctors sometimes will obtain sputum samples by giving a vapor treatment that causes the person to cough deeply (inducing sputum production) or insert a bronchoscope (small flexible tube equipped with a camera) into the airways. Sputum samples obtained by inducing a cough and particularly those obtained with a bronchoscope are less likely to contain saliva and are more likely than expectorated sputum samples to allow doctors to identify the organism causing pneumonia.

It is particularly important for doctors to identify the causative organism when people are severely ill, do not have a normal immune system, or are not responding well to treatment. However, despite these tests, the precise organism cannot be identified conclusively in most people who have pneumonia.

Prevention of Pneumonia

The most effective way to prevent pneumonia is to stop smoking.

Deep-breathing exercises and therapy to clear secretions help prevent pneumonia in people at high risk, such as those who have had chest or abdominal surgery and those who are debilitated.

Vaccines that prevent infection by organisms that cause pneumonia are helpful. Sometimes when an unvaccinated person has contact with a person known to have a virus that can cause pneumonia (such as influenza, chickenpox, or respiratory syncytial virus), doctors will prescribe certain antiviral drugs to try to prevent infection and pneumonia.

Vaccines to prevent pneumonia

Vaccines are available that offer partial protection against pneumonia caused by

  • The bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (only in children)

  • Influenza

  • Chickenpox (varicella)

Treatment of Pneumonia

  • Antibiotics and sometimes antiviral or antifungal drugs

  • Treatments to support breathing

People with pneumonia also need to clear secretions and may benefit from deep-breathing exercises. People with pneumonia who are short of breath or have low levels of oxygen in their blood are given oxygen, usually by a small plastic tube in the nostrils (nasal cannula). Although rest is an important part of treatment, complete bed rest can be harmful, and people are encouraged to move often and get out of bed and into a chair.

Usually antibiotics are started whenever bacterial pneumonia is suspected, even before the organism is identified. The prompt use of antibiotics likely reduces the severity of pneumonia and the chance of developing complications, some of which can lead to death.


When choosing an antibiotic, doctors consider which organism is likely to be the cause. Several factors may give clues to the organism causing pneumonia:

  • Type of pneumonia (community-acquired pneumonia, hospital-acquired pneumonia, health care–associated pneumonia, obstructive pneumonia, aspiration pneumonia)

  • The person's age

  • Whether or not the person's immune system is functioning correctly or if the person has other lung diseases

  • Severity of the pneumonia

  • Information about what organisms are common in the local area and which antibiotics are able to kill them

  • Any available information from diagnostic testing, such as the identification of specific bacteria in sputum cultures

In general, a doctor chooses an antibiotic that has "broader" activity, meaning that the antibiotic is effective against a wide range of microorganisms, even microorganisms that are resistant to some antibiotics, in the following circumstances:

  • When pneumonia is severe

  • If the person's immune system is not working correctly

  • If the person has hospital-acquired pneumonia, health care–associated pneumonia, or a previous pneumonia with a microorganism that is resistant to some antibiotics

Doctors may give a different antibiotic later, after the organism has been identified and its susceptibility to various antibiotics is known.

Of note, a "broad" antibiotic also kills the normal bacteria that live in the intestine and can result in a severe diarrhea that can be life-threatening, a condition called Clostridium difficile-induced colitis or antibiotic-associated colitis. Therefore, a broad antibiotic is used only in the circumstances described above. In comparison, for people with less severe pneumonia and for those in general good health, a "narrower" antibiotic is chosen that is usually appropriate for the most common microorganisms that cause pneumonia. Though these antibiotics can also cause diarrhea, it happens less frequently. These antibiotics are usually successful, and this approach avoids the drawbacks of a broader antibiotic.

Antiviral and antifungal drugs

Antibiotics are not helpful for viral pneumonias. However, specific antiviral drugs are sometimes given if certain viral infections are suspected, such as influenza or chickenpox. For influenza, specific antiviral drugs (such as oseltamivir or zanamivir) can reduce the duration and severity of illness if people begin taking the drug within 48 hours of when symptoms start. However, once a person has developed influenza pneumonia, doctors are not sure whether the antiviral drugs will help. Sometimes a bacterial pneumonia can develop after the viral infection. In this case, doctors give affected people antibiotics.

In rare cases, a fungus or parasite is the cause of the pneumonia, and an antifungal or antiparasitic drug is given.

Home vs. hospital care

Often, people who have pneumonia but are not very sick can stay at home and take antibiotics by mouth. Older people, infants, and those who are short of breath, are very sick, or have preexisting heart or lung disease are usually hospitalized and given intravenous antibiotics, antivirals, or antifungals to start. Those antibiotics are usually switched to oral ones after a few days. People who need to be hospitalized may also need supplemental oxygen and intravenous fluids. People who are very sick may need to be sedated and temporarily put on a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) that pushes air in and out of the lungs via a tube inserted in the throat.

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