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What you need to know about pneumonia

Pneumonia isn't the killer it used to be, but it's still a dangerous disease.

In the early 20th century, pneumonia was a leading cause of death in the United States. Antibiotics knocked it down the list, but pneumonia is still dangerous. It takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year.

Pneumonia develops when the lungs become infected or inflamed. The affected tissue produces pus, blocking the airways. Oxygen can't get from the lungs to the bloodstream, starving the whole body. If the infection spreads to the bloodstream, it can invade several organs.

Pneumonia comes in many forms. It may be caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or chemicals. Altogether, more than 30 different causes of pneumonia are known.

Young, healthy people who seek treatment quickly have the best chance of a fast and complete recovery. Older people or people with other illnesses or a weakened immune system may develop a more severe infection that's harder to treat.

Getting vaccinated can help prevent pneumonia. There are two different vaccines available. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) is recommended for kids at 2, 4, 6 and 12–15 months and for adults age 65 or older who have not received it previously.

The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV) is recommended for all adults age 65 or older. It's also recommended for all adults who smoke or have asthma.

Kids and adults with certain risk factors for pneumonia may also need either one or a combination of these vaccines.

Because pneumonia often develops during a bout with the flu, getting a flu vaccine can help prevent pneumonia.

The symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Coughing up white, green or rust-colored mucus.
  • Blue-tinged lips and nails.

Pneumonia should always be treated as soon as possible. If you think you may have pneumonia, see your doctor immediately.

reviewed 7/12/2019

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