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Let’s take a deep breath and talk about pneumonia

Pneumonia fact-check – are you at risk? 

This past week, the Lung Foundation has highlighted a very common but serious disease that affects many Australians – pneumonia. Let’s follow their lead and look at how to recognise the signs of pneumonia, how to identify if someone might be at risk, and how to help prevent pneumonia from occurring.

What is pneumonia?

We all have tiny air sacs in our lungs (called alveoli) that hold oxygen. Pneumonia causes those air sacs to swell and fill with pus or fluid, which stops air from flowing normally. There are many types of pneumonia, and most are caused by infections from bacteria or viruses. Some of these microbes are contagious, being spread by a cough or sneeze.

What are the signs?

The most common signs of pneumonia are:

  • Cough (dry or productive)
  • Fever/chills
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain, especially when coughing or breathing deeply.

Not everyone will get all of the symptoms, and pneumonia can sometimes look like a cold or flu. If you or someone you know has a few of these symptoms, it’s definitely worth getting to a GP for a closer look.

Who is at risk?

Pneumonia is a common infection – the Lung Foundation says there are over 77,500 pneumonia hospitalisations in Australia each year. Anyone can get pneumonia, but small babies and adults over the age of 65 are at an increased risk even if they are otherwise healthy, simply because of their age. The severity of the infection and the length of stay in hospital as a result greatly increases with age. Other at-risk groups are people who smoke, Indigenous Australians and people with other serious medical conditions – especially lung conditions like COPD.

Can pneumonia be prevented?

Pneumonia has such a wide range of causes and triggers that there is no 100% certain way to avoid contracting this infection. The good news is that there are several simple things you can do to lessen your chances of getting pneumonia:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Practice good hygiene – especially washing your hands well and often.
  • Have the pneumococcal vaccine.

The pneumococcal vaccine protects against the most common cause of pneumonia infection. The vaccine is free in Australia to at-risk people; including all Australians over the age of 65, people with a high-risk illness such as diabetes or weakened immune systems, Indigenous Australians who are aged 50 years or older, or Indigenous Australians aged 15-49 who have medical problems that might put them at risk.

Discuss with your GP if the pneumococcal vaccine is right for you. Pneumonia is a serious disease – if you suspect that you or someone you know might have pneumonia, seek medical advice as soon as possible. Your GP will be able to point you in the right direction.

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