Lung infections are more common than many people may think. In fact, according to the World Health Organization’s latest statistics, lower respiratory (lung) infections caused 3 million deaths world-wide in 2016. The good news is that with a proper understanding of the causes, symptoms, and treatment options, most types of lower respiratory infections are easily managed.
Pneumonia is an infection in the air sacs of the lungs, and it can be caused by various viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
- Bacterial Pneumonia doesn’t discriminate. Everyone is susceptible. It’s a condition all of its own and can stem from a cold or the flu. The most common type of bacterial pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the pneumococcal bacteria, which can be prevented with a vaccine. Vaccines are recommended for those over 65 and those under the age of 5.Atypical pneumonias are forms of bacterial pneumonia most often attributed to mycoplasma pneumoniae (Walking pneumonia), Chlamydophila pneumoniae, and Legionella pneumophila (Legionnaires Disease). The first two are generally spread by sneezing and coughing. The highest occurrences of these are in public places like schools, hospitals, dormitories, prisons, military barracks or other areas where large groups are confined in communal spaces. The last, Legionella pneumophila, occurs naturally in fresh water streams and lakes. However, when it enters man-made water systems it grows and with that growth comes a risk for human infection. It spreads via small, mist-like water drops that are inhaled.
- Viral Pneumonia is caused by other viruses, such as the flu. This type of pneumonia doesn’t cause the lungs to fill with fluid like bacterial pneumonia does. They can co-exist with bacterial pneumonias, making them even more dangerous.
- Mycoplasma Pneumonia is a mild lung infection that has traits of both bacterial and viral pneumonia. It is most common in younger children and young adults.
Children under the age of 2, adults over the age of 65, people with weakened or suppressed immune systems, and those with other underlying conditions are at the highest risk of contracting pneumonia.
Mild cases of pneumonia are usually treated at home with antibiotics, fever reducers/pain relievers, and cough medicine. More severe cases may require hospitalization. If you’re diagnosed with pneumonia, stay hydrated, take your medication, and get plenty of rest.
You can prevent some types of pneumonia with vaccines, older adults and young children, especially. Wash your hands, brush your teeth, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, don’t smoke, exercise, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep.
RSV (Respiratory Synctial Virus)
According to the CDC, RSV is a common respiratory virus with mild, cold-like symptoms. However, RSV can be very serious when it occurs in infants and older adults. In children under 1 year old, it’s the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs).
RSV spreads through the air when a person coughs or sneezes, through contact with infected surfaces like light switches and door knobs, and through direct contact such as kissing a sick child. You can prevent spreading RSV by coughing and sneezing into your elbow; washing your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds; and by avoiding hand shaking, kissing, sharing drink containers, and sharing utensils. Cleaning contaminated surfaces like crib rails, drawer pulls, etc. may also help keep RSV from spreading.
Because viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, the illness must run its course. Supportive care may involve the use of acetaminophen, nasal saline drops, and nasal suctioning along with a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer to ease coughing and congestion. Keep the person as comfortable as possible and push fluids to prevent dehydration. Occasionally hospitalization is needed to administer intravenous fluids and humidified oxygen.
Bronchitis is an inflammation and infection of the bronchial tube lining. The infection itself clears up in three to 10 days, but the cough can remain for several weeks after the infection is gone. Acute bronchitis isn’t a problem for normally healthy people. For young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, it can lead to more serious issues, such as pneumonia or respiratory failure.
Because it’s caused by a virus, acute bronchitis is contagious through coughing, sneezing, and talking.
You can reduce risk of bronchitis with flu and pneumonia vaccines, frequent hand washing, and avoiding contact with other people who have respiratory illnesses.
Like other viral infections, the most common treatments are pain relievers, cough suppressants, humidifiers, rest, and plenty of liquids. Occasionally an inhaler is prescribed to open the airway and reduce wheezing. To learn more, read our guide to bronchitis.
An infection causing congestion and inflammation of the small airways known as bronchioles, bronchiolitis is most common in children and infants. Usually caused by a virus, bronchiolitis mimics the common cold then progresses into coughing and wheezing. It most commonly results from RSV, but it can also be triggered by the flu and the common cold.
Bronchiolitis is spread by coughing, sneezing, and talking, and through physical contact with infected surfaces like toys, towels, and so forth. It usually lasts two to three weeks and is treated with supportive care much like other viral lung infections.
The best method of prevention is to wash hands often in warm, soapy water and to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like counters, tables, appliances, and faucets. Cough and sneeze into your elbow, use hand sanitizer, and don’t share drink containers with others.
Preventing Lung Infections
You can protect your lungs and drastically lower your risk for lung infections by practicing these habits:
- Get a flu vaccine every year
- Talk to your doctor about pneumonia vaccines
- Practice good oral hygiene (brush teeth twice a day and see a dentist annually)
- Wash your hands often in warm, soapy water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers
- Stay away from crowds during cold and flu season
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid indoor and outdoor pollutants as much as possible
- Pay attention to air quality reports
- Keep your immediate environment (home, work space, etc.) clean
- Clean and disinfect common surfaces regularly (especially kitchens and bathrooms)
If you do contract a lung infection, stay home and avoid close contact with other people to keep the illness from spreading.