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Dec. 8, 2023

By Brandi F. Gosdin, PA-C

USMD Las Colinas


Most of us know someone who suffered for weeks with what they thought was a cold only to go to the doctor and find out they have pneumonia.

Pneumonia is one of the leading causes of illness and death worldwide. It is most dangerous in certain high-risk populations including children, older adults and immune-compromised patients.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pneumonia was responsible for more than a million emergency room visits and killed almost 45,000 people in the United States in 2021.

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses or even fungi. Bacterial pneumonia usually presents with cough, fever and shortness of breath. It more commonly effects one lung (though it can affect both) and if quickly recognized and treated with antibiotics, has a high rate of recovery.

Fungal pneumonia is rare in healthy people and mostly affects those with compromised immune systems; an example is Pnuemocystis jirovecii (PCP), commonly known to affect HIV patients.

Viral pneumonia is more common in children, is usually slower in onset, and symptoms include cough, fatigue and poor appetite. Less frequently, fever or shortness of breath may be present. It commonly affects both lungs.

Though some antiviral medications have proven helpful in severe cases, treatment is mostly supportive – rest, fluids, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, cough medicine and oxygen, if needed.

Viral pneumonia usually develops after an illness caused by a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Pneumonia that develops from these viral infections can be serious and may require a hospital stay, so it is best to try to keep the first infection from happening.

That is where immunizations such as those against influenza, COVID-19 and RSV are important. The RSV vaccine may be recommended for some older adults. These vaccines are effective at reducing or preventing the flu, COVID-19 and RSV, which can lead to viral pneumonia.

Adults older than 65 tend to have a higher risk of getting pneumonia and their symptoms may be more difficult to detect. They may or may not have a noticeable cough and frequently they have a poor appetite, fatigue and even confusion. It is important that anyone who experiences shortness of breath, poor appetite, fatigue, fever of 100.5 or above, or a cough that lingers beyond 10 days see their health care provider right away.

There are different variations of pneumonia vaccines available to protect against pneumococcal bacteria. Some are targeted more toward those types of pneumococcal bacteria that effect children, while others are specific to those that affect older adults. Patients should talk with their primary care physician about which vaccine and vaccination schedule is best for them.

In addition to routine immunizations, there are additional ways to keep healthy during this season of illness – wear a mask in public, continue to social distance, clean surfaces constantly and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

My colleagues and I agree we saw only a fraction of the flu cases we normally see while we were all taking these extra precautions during the pandemic. It is very clear these measures reduce transmission of respiratory pathogens – thereby reducing the chance of developing pneumonia.

Brandi F. Gosdin, PA-C, practices at USMD Las Colinas Clinic in Irving, Texas. She received her Bachelor’s of Science from Texas A&M University College Station and her Master’s of PA studies from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School here in Dallas. 

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