Pneumonia in the time of COVID-19 and Beyond


News stories of COVID-19 often show images of people on ventilators in intensive care units (ICUs). The infection, which affects the lungs, can cause a serious complication: pneumonia. When pneumonia severe enough, patients may need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidelines on the causes of pneumonia to include COVID-19. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases also updated its website information, stating that all human coronaviruses can cause serious illnesses, like pneumonia, but that pneumonia is most common in COVID patients who have a history of heart and lung disease, as well as those with weak immune systems.

Researchers are hard at work looking at all aspects of COVID-19, including any connection with the lungs. A study published in the journal The Lancet on August 3 looked at how COVID-19 patients were affected by pneumonia. The researchers found that while most COVID-19 patients had only mild-to-moderate illness, 5-10% of them became severely or critically ill with pneumonia or severe respiratory failure. Not only does this mean they need intensive care in many cases, they may die. They may also be left with long-term complications caused by lasting lung damage.

Your Pneumonia Primer

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, affecting one or both lungs. It can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The illness can be severe, requiring hospitalization, or mild as in “walking pneumonia.” Some of the most common pneumonia symptoms are:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Stabbing pain in the chest, especially if you take a deep breath or cough

Each year, more than 250,000 people in the United States are treated for pneumonia; 50,000 die from the disease, according to the latest statistics shared by CDC.

Anyone can get pneumonia, although people who are 65 years or older and children younger than five are at higher risk of the infection being more serious, as are those who have chronic health issues such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. People who smoke cigarettes also fall into a higher risk group.

Hospitalized patients can also contract pneumonia, especially if they are placed on a ventilator because their respiratory system is failing. In order to be placed on a ventilator, patients must be intubated – a “breathing tube” is inserted through the trachea (windpipe) so the air can be pushed into the lungs by the ventilator. This tube gives direct access to the lungs, so any germ can enter the lungs and cause pneumonia.

But How Does Pneumonia Affect Body?

Each lung has millions of air sacs that take in air when you inhale. This is where oxygen passes into the linings and to the blood vessels. If you get pneumonia, these tiny air sacs become inflamed and can fill fluid or pus. When this happens, less oxygen can reach the blood stream. The more air sacs that are affected, the harder it is for your body to get that much needed oxygen. Oxygen levels fall and affect the heart and brain. Pneumonia is also one of the most common causes of sepsis, which can lead to other complications and death.

The Take-Away

Some types of pneumonia may be prevented with a pneumococcal vaccine. This vaccine is recommended for adults who are 65 years old or older, and people 19 years old and younger who have a health condition that can put them at higher risk of pneumonia.

If you are visiting a loved one or friend in the hospital, it is important to follow all infection-prevention guidelines, even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. This means thoroughly washing your hands before coming in contact with the patient and their things,  and not visiting if you have any signs of illness, even a cold.

Otherwise, the most important thing to keep in mind regarding pneumonia is to get diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. So if you have any symptoms of pneumonia, don’t try to ride it out. Even the mildest forms of pneumonia can worsen or cause complications.

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