Pneumonia is a dangerous illness

Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 10:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 10:01 a.m.

The nation is mourning the death of James Brown. The first report I heard mentioned that the originator of the saying, ‘‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’’ died as a result pneumonia.

I immediately wondered what kind of pneumonia this great American citizen had and if there were others of us who could learn a lesson that might prove to be life-sparing.

Pneumonia is not an unusual diagnosis. We probably hear about it on a fairly regular basis, especially during the winter months, but it can be very dangerous if not detected and treated.

Although the treatments today are very effective, perhaps the best answer for us all is trying to prevent an occurrence in the first place.

In the way of a definition, pneumonia can be classified as an inflammation of the lungs caused primarily by viruses, bacteria and other microscopic organisms or germs.

More often than not, pneumonia is a complication of a pre-existing condition or infection that occurs when the body’s defense is weakened. Other causes of pneumonia may be the inhalation (breathing in) of dust, liquids and other material that is foreign to the lungs.

The elderly are especially vulnerable and may get pneumonia as the result of the flu or other viruses that may attack the upper respiratory system.

Pneumonia and influenza are ranked as the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. During the year 2003, more than 63,241 deaths were attributed to pneumonia.

The lungs are very complicated, and are charged with supplying the body with the very air that keeps us alive. In emergency care, one always works with a hierarchy known as the ABC’s, or (in order of importance) airway, breathing and circulation. When there is a breakdown with this system, life-sustaining functions are at risk.

When these three functions are not working well, the very young and the elderly are more likely to find themselves in a life-threatening situation.

Keep in mind though that all pneumonia is not life threatening. About 50 percent of pneumonia cases each year are caused by viruses and occur in persons who are not in the elderly category. These people usually survive with no lasting side effects.

The type of pneumonia is classified by the area of the lung that is affected. In other words, lobar pneumonia refers to the lobe that is affected.

One or more lobes may be involved, (the right lung is divided into three lobes while the left is divided into two). Another classification is called bronchial pneumonia and refers to patches that may occur anywhere in the lungs.

It is possible for the health practitioner to get a good idea about the status of your lungs from a physical exam. They do so by listening while you breathe air into your lungs and when you blow it out.

Remember having the stethoscope (usually a cold one) placed against your chest while you are asked to ‘‘take a deep breath’’ in through your mouth and slowly let it out?

The absence of the sounds or a distortion of the sound will lead your practitioner to do more test, which will probably include an X-ray.

Distinguishing between viral pneumonia and bacteria-caused pneumonia will have to be done by your doctor. It is important to report the kind of cough that you experience and whether you are bringing up phlegm (mucus).

You will be asked if the phlegm is yellow, green or clear in color. If viral pneumonia is suspected, the symptoms may resemble those of the flu and include the following:

  • Fever

  • Dry cough

  • Headache

  • Muscle pain

  • Weakness

  • Fever

  • Shortness of breath

    Having close contact with individuals who are sick during the winter months require us to be vigilant in our personal care. Good hand washing is one of the key preventive measures to most contact-related illnesses.

    Our hands touch door knobs, grocery store buggies, the hands of other people and much more. When someone coughs without covering the cough, droplets are in the cough that we can breathe in.

    Try practicing basis safe care for yourself and you will help those around you. Talk to your doctor about the immunization for bacterial pneumonia. Perhaps the most devastating of these bacterial-caused pneumonias is the one that is caused by the pneumococcal bacteria.

    Health care providers recommend a vaccination, especially for the elderly, in order to prevent this infection. Check with your doctor to see if you should receive this vaccination, and how often it should be given.

    Vivian Filer is a retired professor of nursing, Santa Fe Community College. Write to her in care of the Gainesville Guardian, "Health Files," 2700 SW 13th St., Gainesville, Fla. 32608. You can also e-mail your questions, with "Health Files" in the subject line, to

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