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Cold and Flu Season – Pneumonia Too?

By Vincenza Snow, MD, FACP - This article originally published on Get Healthy Stay Healthy.

Pneumonia can occur anytime of the year. But did you know that cases of a certain type of pneumonia increase during the winter months? Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) is the most common type of pneumonia. It is usually caused by bacteria and occurs in persons who are not hospitalized.

CAP is different from healthcare-acquired pneumonia, which is pneumonia that occurs in people who are in nursing homes or extended care facilities. It’s also different from hospital-acquired pneumonia, which occurs in people during a hospital stay. CAP is a type of pneumonia that affects individuals who are generally healthy or whose chronic conditions are treated and under control. And it often occurs during flu season.

You might know that pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or irritants such as smoke and chemicals. Read Facts About Pneumonia to learn more about the basics of pneumonia.

CAP During Cold and Flu Season

Bacteria usually live harmlessly on our skin and in our noses – in that state we are called healthy “carriers”. CAP may be more common during cold and flu season because a cold or flu can weaken the immune system and even damage the airways. This creates an opportunity for bacteria to cause infection in the lungs.

People At Risk for CAP

Of course you don’t have to have the flu or a cold to be susceptible to CAP. But people who have respiratory conditions or other chronic diseases may be more at risk, including those with:

  • Chronic heart disease
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung disease such as COPD and asthma
  • Diabetes
  • HIV

Getting treatment right away in these situations is important. CAP can cause underlying conditions to worsen, and create other complications such as fluid around your lungs, or bacteremia (infection in your blood), which can cause infection of the brain or other organs. It may even lead to death.

Older people, babies and young children, and those with certain conditions are also more at risk for CAP. The immune system may be weaker in older persons or in those with other illnesses, or not fully developed in the very young, and thus more susceptible to infection. Speak to your healthcare provider about what vaccinations might be right for you.

CAP Symptoms

The severity of pneumonia symptoms might range from being mild to severe, depending on factors such as your age or your overall health. The most common symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • High fever
  • Chills
  • Cough (usually significant); sputum (phlegm) may be reddish or yellow-green in color
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue

If you experience any of the symptoms of CAP, see your doctor right away.

Prevent the Spread of CAP

Preventing the spread of CAP is very much like preventing the spread of any infectious respiratory disease. There are things you can do on a regular basis to promote safety and prevent infections.

  • Exercise and eat healthy to ensure a strong immune system
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your arm sleeve instead of your hands
  • Wash your hands often (especially before preparing and eating food, or when you come in contact with someone who is or has been sick)
  • Get vaccinated with a yearly flu shot and for certain age groups also a pneumonia vaccine. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about getting vaccinated

Taking special care with these prevention measures during and after flu and cold season can help to protect you from CAP./p>

Dr. Vincenza Snow is a general internist with special interests in adult immunization, evidence-based guideline development, clinical policy, medical education, performance measurement, and practice-based quality improvement. She is a Senior Medical Director for Vaccines at Pfizer, Inc.