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How Do I Know I Have a Pneumonia?

For Patients

For people with COPD, it is sometimes difficult to know if their respiratory infection is the flu, a cold, a respiratory infection (acute bronchitis) or pneumonia. Acute bronchitis is the sudden swelling of the bronchial tubes from infection. Often, your provider may not be able to tell you what organism has caused the bronchitis, but antibiotics control the problem quickly. Conversely, pneumonia may begin like bronchitis, but does not go away with usual treatment. Common signs of pneumonia are more shortness of breath than usual, cough, increase (or sudden decrease) in the amount of sputum, a deep yellow, green or red color to the sputum, coughing blood, fatigue (extreme exhaustion), or fever. A chest x-ray is needed to diagnose pneumonia.

Pneumonia can develop in the lungs from an infection caused by any of several organisms (also called "germs" or "bugs"). These organisms can be a virus, bacteria or fungus. Organisms can grow in the lungs if the person’s immune system is too weak to fight off the organism’s growth. Our lungs, like our mouth and nose, normally contain organisms, but they are either harmless or are too few in number to be harmful. Harmful organisms are termed pathogenic (they cause infection whether in small or large amounts). People developing pneumonia are either not able to control the growth of these organisms or have inhaled pathogenic organisms that are quick to cause pneumonia.

Is pneumonia dangerous?

Pneumonia can be dangerous, especially if the person is already very weak. People with COPD often become weak because of lack of exercise or nutritional problems. If pneumonia does occur, it can usually be treated at home with antibiotics. Sometimes your provider has to change the antibiotic if the organism does not go away with the first antibiotic. If you get too weak, or unable to breathe adequately because of the infection in the lungs, you may need to be hospitalized. Occasionally, people with pneumonia need to have their breathing assisted or controlled with a ventilator until the infection is controlled. Some people are too weak to fight the infection, even when a ventilator is used, and die from pneumonia. Pneumonia can be very dangerous if not treated early.

What can I do to treat the pneumonia?

When antibiotics are prescribed, take them as directed, no more or no less than prescribed (unless they are causing side-effects). That means not only the dosage (for example "one tablet twice a day"), but also for the length of time outlined by your healthcare provider (for example "take for 7 days"). The length of time you are prescribed antibiotics varies with the medication and your provider’s evaluation. Therefore, some antibiotics are for 5 days and some for 14 days. The important thing is not to stop taking antibiotics because you "feel better". There is no single antibiotic that is considered the "best" to treat all pneumonias. Your healthcare provider will decide which is best for you based on your history and chest x-ray. It is likely you will need to use your inhalers more frequently and possibly use inhaled steroids or steroid tablets for a short period of time in order to help you recover from the pneumonia.

When should I call my healthcare provider about pneumonia?

You should call your healthcare provider if you suspect that you may have pneumonia. Signs of pneumonia are dark yellow or green sputum production in larger amounts than normal, a feeling of congestion that won’t go away, increasing shortness of breath, fever and increasing tiredness. Your provider will determine if you have pneumonia with a chest x-ray and antibiotics will be prescribed if you have. You should call your provider if the sputum does not improve in color or amount after several days of antibiotics. You should also call if your breathlessness worsens or fever does not improve. You can expect to be weak from pneumonia. Weakness, however, that worsens despite treatment should be brought to the attention of your healthcare provider.