Prevention is your best protection
Pneumonia is not a cold or flu. It is a common and potentially fatal lung infection that can affect anyone. There are over 77,500 pneumonia hospitalisations in Australia each year, and the average stay rises with age – from 6 days for those under 65 to 13 days for those 65+. Adults aged 65 and over, no matter how healthy they feel, are at increased risk simply due to their age.
What is it?
Pneumonia is a common and potentially fatal lung infection that should not be underestimated. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. During normal respiration, air travels through the lungs to the alveoli or air sacs. Pneumonia results when air sacs in the lungs fill with secretions and fluids that obstruct normal air flow. There are many types of pneumonia. One of the most common and life-threatening types is pneumococcal pneumonia.
This year, it’s more important than ever for Australia’s vulnerable community members, including those impacted by lung disease and lung cancer, to ensure their pneumonia vaccination is up to date. These vaccines won’t combat COVID-19 but they will help to reduce the severity and spread of influenza and pneumonia which alone can have a detrimental impact on our vulnerable community members. Now more than ever we need to protect against these conditions to help reduce additional strain on health resources which are needed to fight COVID-19.
Who is at risk?
Anyone of any age can contract pneumonia, but those at a higher risk are:
- People aged 70+
- People with medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer or a chronic disease affecting the lungs, heart , kidney or liver
- Tobacco smokers
- Indigenous Australians
- Infants aged 12 months or under.
It’s important to remember no matter how healthy and active you are, your risk for getting pneumonia increases with age. This is because our immune system naturally weakens with age, making it harder for our bodies to fight off infections and diseases.
People with chronic lung conditions have an increased risk of developing pneumonia because infections are more common when the lungs are already weakened. You may have more severe symptoms and are at higher risk for hospitalisation. It can also take you longer to recover and you are more likely to develop serious complications from the infection.
If you or your child or the person you are caring for seems to be recovering well from a cold or flu, but then gets worse, pneumonia may be the cause. See your doctor immediately – pneumonia can be life threatening to babies, young children and people aged 70 and over.
The symptoms of pneumonia depend on the age of the person, the cause and severity of the infection, and any existing problems with immunity.
Symptoms should not be ignored as they can lead to hospitalisation and can be life-threatening:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain.
It is important to be aware that if you have pneumonia you may not show all signs and symptoms. Pneumonia is easily spread through coughing and sneezing. The infection can come on rapidly and develop in just 1 – 3 days.
The types of pneumonia include:
Bacterial pneumonia: One of the most severe and potentially life-threatening forms of pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, which is caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae. This bacterium is responsible for approximately 1.6 million deaths each year world-wide. Healthy people may carry this bacteria in their nose and throat. While most of the time this does not cause any illness, vulnerable groups such as those over the age of 70, infants, people with a chronic illness etc. may develop pneumococcal disease.
Viral pneumonia: This type is caused by various viruses, including influenza. It is thought that around half of pneumonia cases are attributed to this type of pneumonia.
Mycoplasma pneumonia: This type is caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This type of pneumonia can have some different symptoms and physical signs such as white phlegm, nausea and vomiting. Pneumonia caused by mycoplasma organisms is generally mild, but recovery takes longer.
Other pneumonia: There are other less common pneumonia that may be caused by other infections including fungi.
Pneumonia can be spread through inhaling infected droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze of an infected person. The infection can also be spread through blood (e.g. during birth). It can be triggered by a cold or bout of the flu, which allows germs to grow in the air sacs of the lungs. The infection can develop in just 1–3 days.
A doctor can often diagnose pneumonia based on your symptoms and by examining your chest, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you have pneumonia or another kind of chest infection. If a general examination isn’t conclusive, you may require chest x-rays or blood tests.
Treatment for pneumonia depends on the age of the individual and the type of infection, but can include:
- hospital admission for babies, young children and people over 70 years old
- plenty of fluids taken orally or intravenously
- antibiotics to kill the infection, if bacteria are the cause
- medications to relieve pain and reduce fever
- rest – sitting up is better than lying down.
The mean duration of hospital stay for pneumococcal pneumonia rises with age, ranging from six days for those under 65 years of age, to 13 days for those aged 65 or above.
Prevention is your best protection
Take steps to protect yourself against pneumonia
- Practice good hand and home hygiene to minimise the spread of germs
- Make your life a smoke-free zone by quitting smoking and/or reducing your exposure to second hand smoke.
- Have the vaccination which is funded under the government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) free for:
- All Australians aged 70 years or older
- Indigenous Australians aged 50 years or older, and
- Indigenous Australians aged 15 to 49 years who are medically at risk.
A second dose of vaccine is also available to some Australians, a minimum of five years following their first dose. The vaccine is also subsidised on the PBS for those aged under 70 who are considered at increased risk for contracting pneumonia, for example if they are immune-compromised.
Make an appointment with your doctor today for the pneumonia vaccination.
Influenza is a common preceding viral infection. Being vaccinated against influenza can also help prevent that infection and the pneumonia which may complicate it.
What makes COVID-19 pneumonia different?
Most types of pneumonia, such as pneumococcal pneumonia, are bacterial infections that can get better with treatment, usually an antibiotic. There is also a vaccine available to reduce the risk of infection.
However, COVID-19 is a virus which can cause pneumonia and therefore this type of pneumonia cannot be treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, we currently don’t have anything that can stop people getting COVID-19 pneumonia either, but we hope that we will soon. People all around the world are working hard to trial all sorts of medications and we’re hopeful we might discover that there are various combinations of viral and anti-viral medications that could be effective. At the moment there isn’t any established treatment, apart from supportive treatment, which is what we give people in intensive care.
Not all COVID-19 cases develop into pneumonia, in fact that is a minority of cases – approximately only 6-10% at the very most. The people most likely to get pneumonia from COVID-19 are older and have underlying health conditions. - Professor Christine Jenkins AM
Will the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine protect against COVID-19?
The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine is a specific type of vaccine that targets strains of pneumococcus (a type of bacteria). This vaccine works by promoting an immune response so that if you get exposed to that particular strain of pneumococcus, your immune system recognises it and is able to deal with it without you going on to develop an infection from it. Unfortunately, this vaccine won’t protect against the coronavirus infection because this type of virus is quite different from pneumococcal pneumonia.