House Calls: The risk of pneumonia, flu going up

By Doron Andrews December 26, 2012 11:13 am

 

House Calls runs every other Saturday. Today’s column is written by Doron Andrews, a respiratory therapist at Sutter Coast Hospital.

Now that winter has come upon us and the rain has finally stormed its way in, many of us are considering staying inside to avoid the weather.

While most of us stock up for the cold season with hand sanitizer and vitamin C, there are other things we should stay aware of.  This time of the year is also known as flu and pneumonia season.

Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious viral infection that is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. Most people are ill with the flu for only a few days, but some get much sicker and require hospitalization. Imagine all off a sudden you start to feel exhausted, dehydrated, and unable to take in a full breath of air without feeling pain. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s no longer the flu or cold you’re fighting against, you have pneumonia.  Today I’ll remind you of the signs, symptoms and some preventative measures you can take for both the flu and pneumonia.     

 

 

Studies show that the flu, and related complications like pneumonia, affect more than 3 million people each year and is responsible for over 36,000 deaths every year in the United States.  Most people with pneumonia recover, but about 5–10 percent will become hospitalized due to the condition.  

When you have pneumonia, oxygen has trouble traveling through you lungs and reaching your blood. If there is too little oxygen in your blood, your body’s cells can’t work properly. Because of this and infection spreading through the body, pneumonia can cause death.  Here at Sutter Health, we want to give you the best education possible and inform you of the risks of harmful diseases.  

Signs and symptoms of the flu include fever over 100 degrees, aching muscles, especially in your back, arms and legs chills/sweats, headache, dry cough, fatigue and general weakness.

Signs and symptoms of pneumonia include fever, fatigue/weakness, coughing and producing mucus of variable color, unable to clear mucus (gargle sound in back of throat), and sharp chest pain on inspiration (breathing in). Pneumonia usually starts when you breathe germs, bacteria, or fungi into your lungs. You may be more likely to get the disease after having a cold or the flu. For most people, pneumonia can be treated at home. It often clears up in two to three weeks. But older adults 60-plus, babies, individuals with a long-term, or chronic, disease like asthma, COPD, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, have a 35 percent higher risk of getting pneumonia.

Pneumonia diagnosis usually begins with a physical exam and a discussion about your symptoms and medical history. Doctors may suspect pneumonia if they hear coarse breathing, wheezing, crackling sounds, or rumblings when listening to the chest through a stethoscope.  Chest x-rays may be ordered to confirm a pneumonia diagnosis. A chest x-ray can confirm pneumonia and determine its location and extent in the lungs. Blood tests can measure white blood cell counts to determine the severity of pneumonia and sputum tests can be used to determine whether the infection is bacterial, viral, fungal, etc.

The flu viruses change often so the flu vaccine is updated each year. Protection from the flu develops in about two weeks after getting the shot and may last up to a year. The most common misconception is that you can get the flu from the flu vaccine. This is not true. The viruses in the vaccine have been killed, so you cannot get the flu from the vaccine.

Most vaccines cost money, but some places may reduce the cost or even offer free vaccines. Studies also show that only 54 percent of persons over age 65 receive a flu shot each year. We need to increase that percentage dramatically in order to prevent future infections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu shot for everyone 50 years of age or older.

The pneumonia vaccine for adults (PPV) protects against 23 types of pneumonia. Although antibiotics such as penicillin were once very effective at treating pneumonia, the disease has mutated and is becoming more resistant to modern antibiotics. That is why it is so important to be vaccinated.

Bacterial pneumonias are usually treated with antibiotics, whereas viral pneumonias are treated with rest and plenty of fluids. In addition to vaccinations, physicians recommend that people wash their hands throughout the day, especially before eating.  Also refrain from smoking, eat healthfully, and stay away from sputum or cough particles from others with pneumonia.

The pneumonia vaccine may not completely prevent older adults from getting pneumonia, but it can reduce the severity.

Email suggestions for future House Calls columns to Beth Liles at Sutter Coast Hospital, This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it