How much do you know about pneumonia?

It’s a serious infection that can affect anyone at any age and is more common in the cooler months, yet each year studies show that some Australians continue to ignore their pneumonia risk. As we head into the winter season, find out the simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family against this common lung disease.

More than ‘just a bug’
Pneumonia is potentially life-threatening, so what usually starts out as a cold may lead to breathing problems and chest pain, and can eventually land you in hospital, explains Professor Peter Wark, a respiratory expert from the University of Newcastle.

“It’s a common reason for people to be admitted to hospital, especially in winter,” Professor Wark said.

In 2011-12, there were more than 77,000 hospitalisations for pneumonia. The majority of admissions was among the over 65s, followed by 35-64 year olds.

Lung Foundation Australia’s Heather Allen says we shouldn’t underestimate the severity of the illness.

“We’re heading into the winter season where flu and pneumonia have their greatest impact. Age alone puts you at increased risk of contracting pneumonia. Having an underlying illness also adds to your risk,” she said.

Protecting yourself this winter
“In terms of prevention of pneumonia, influenza vaccine is relevant. It’s probably the most effective of our vaccines to limit the significance of pneumonia,” said Professor Wark.

So how does the flu vaccine protect against pneumonia?
While influenza (or the flu) and pneumonia are two different conditions, the flu virus can lead to pneumonia in adults. If your immune system is weak from a flu virus, your body is less likely to filter germs out of the air you breathe. Eventually these germs may reach your lungs causing them to fill up with fluid resulting in pneumonia symptoms, such as cough, fever, chills and trouble breathing. Vaccinating against the flu can reduce this risk. 

Read more about the 2015 Flu vaccine here. 

Ms Allen says pneumonia can also spread through bacteria.

“One of the most important things people can do, other than vaccination, is hand hygiene, because the infection can be spread through bacteria,” she said.

Ms Allen advises people reduce their risk with simple measures, including washing hands regularly, using hand sanitisers, keeping cooking surfaces clean and avoiding contact with people who have cold or flu-like symptoms. This is particularly important for people with chronic conditions as they are at increased risk of infection, and anyone who spends time with young children or grandchildren.

There is also a pneumonia-specific vaccine, which protects against the most common bacterial type of pneumonia known as pneumococcal pneumonia. The government recommends all Australians over 65 to be vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia and both vaccines are fully subsidised for this age group.

Vaccination is also recommended in people living with chronic illnesses, including diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease.

What to do if you suspect pneumonia
Professor Wark says it can be difficult for people to tell the difference between pneumonia, a cold or the flu.

“If you have a cold, be sensible, stay hydrated and rest up. Heavy exercise when you’re unwell isn’t advisable but you can get back to it when you’re feeling better. In those first few days though, people should take it easy and not push themselves,” he said.

Most colds will run their course within two to five days. If symptoms persist or you have concerns, speak to your GP. Pneumonia symptoms to look out for include rapid or difficulty breathing, chest pain, fever, chills or loss of appetite.

Your doctor may perform a chest x-ray, physical exam or blood test to determine the cause. Treatment for pneumonia will depend on the age, severity and type of infection, and may include rest, fluids, medication, antibiotics (if bacterial) and hospital admission in more severe cases.

Where to get more information
Lung Foundation Australia is a national charity that provides support and information on lung disease, including pneumonia:

To speak to a lung care nurse or to enquire about health or support services in your area, call the Lung Foundation Australia support line on 1800 654 301.

You can also assess your lung health risk by taking an interactive online test here: The Lung Foundation.