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Ask an Expert: What is Pneumonia, and How Do I Avoid and Treat It?

Woman lies sick in bed.

Colds and flus are common during the winter, thanks to more time spent indoors and the easy spread of germs. However, when viruses and bacteria get into the lungs, even what started as a simple cold can turn into pneumonia.

It’s important to know when your symptoms have become something more serious and what to do to get better. The experts that are part of the SUNY Health community are here to help. We asked Kimberlie Noyes, M.S.N., F.N.P., assistant professor of nursing at Finger Lakes Community College, to tell us all about pneumonia — what is it, who’s at risk, how can we diagnose it, and what are the best ways to treat it.

Kimberlie Noyes, professor at Finger Lakes Community CollegeExpert: Kimberlie Noyes, M.S.N., RNC,  F.N.P.
Title: Assistant Professor of Nursing
Campus: Finger Lakes Community College

Q: What is Pneumonia, and How Do I Avoid and Treat It?

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death worldwide in children ages 5 and under. It sickens 5 to 10 million people a year, and roughly a million people wind up in the hospital. Nearly 50,000 people die from it each year.

Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial, but unless we do a culture of sputum, we don’t always know the cause. Often, we diagnose pneumonia simply by symptomology and listening to the lungs through a stethoscope. If a patient has pneumonia, there will be minimal movement of air, and we may hear a crackling that sounds like pieces of hair being rubbed together next to the ear.

In many cases, chest x-rays may not be done. High-risk groups include people over age 65, children under age 2, and people who have compromised immune systems and comorbidities. That may include people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes or renal impairment.

Like all superbugs these days, we prefer to treat pneumonia by managing the symptoms, so we don’t overprescribe antibiotics. Patients who take antibiotics and see no improvement will know that their infection is viral. Those who improve quickly can assume their infection is bacterial.

In any case, we urge all patients to practice symptom management. This may include acetaminophen to reduce fever, aches and pain, and guaifenesin (Mucinex) and fluids to loosen phlegm and reduce congestion.

Getting vaccinated for pneumonia and the flu can help protect adults who are 65 and older as well as people who are vulnerable. The pneumonia vaccine provides protection for up to about 10 years, after which you’ll need a booster.

Basic hygiene and healthy habits are also important. Washing your hands regularly can help you avoid the colds and flu that can lead to pneumonia. It’s also important to reduce your stress and get enough sleep, so your immune system is at its best.

Another tip: don’t vape. We’re seeing more aspiration pneumonia among young people who vape. Aspiration pneumonia occurs when you inhale food or liquids into your lungs. In people who vape, the lungs develop an oily coating, making it harder for the lungs to filter out particulates and breathing extremely difficult. Treatment may require intubation, heavy-duty antibiotics, and procedures to remove the vaping oils that coat the lungs.

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Written by Winnie Yu

Winnie Yu is a writer in the Office of Communications at SUNY System Administration.

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