How to Tell If It’s Pneumonia

See a doctor if serious symptoms persist

asian woman in bed with flu

It’s hard to fight something you can’t easily detect.

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Pneumonia is treatable, but spotting the infection early is a challenge. The disease has multiple symptoms that can lead people to think their illness is nothing more than the common cold or flu.

“It’s a tough disease to diagnose,” says Marie Budev, DO, a pulmonologist and the Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s lung transplant program. “Both can have the symptoms of coughing, fever and chest pain.”

Cause for concern: symptoms beyond 3-5 days

These persistent or severe symptoms are red flags to watch for:

•    Serious congestion or chest pain
•    Difficulty breathing
•    A fever of 102 or higher
•    Coughing that produces pus

Dr. Budev urges any person experiencing chest pain or breathing complications to immediately see a doctor. Pneumonia-like symptoms in very young children or in adults older than 65 are a particular cause for concern.

It is critical to get treatment for pneumonia as soon as possible. It can cause permanent lung damage if left untreated for too long. Because it shares symptoms with the common cold and flu, people often rely on home treatment instead of seeking medical attention. But if you don’t see improvement in a few days, don’t just let it go.

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“Pneumonia symptoms last longer than the cold and flu,” says Dr. Budev. “Using the home therapy of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medicine is OK, but if you are still experiencing coughing, chest pain and congestion after three to five days, you should go see a doctor.”

Viral vs. bacterial – how they differ

Those with viral pneumonia will often experience mild fatigue, congestion and coughing without mucus. Since the symptoms of viral pneumonia are usually considered mild, minimal treatment is required. It can be more serious, however, for young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

People with bacterial pneumonia will often have colored mucus, a fever and chest pain. They should seek medical attention to prevent lung damage.

Bacterial pneumonia can sometimes develop after a cold or flu and often is caused by exposure to the streptococcus pneumonia germ.

Prevention is key

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pneumonia also can be prevented with vaccines in many cases. Several vaccines prevent infection by bacteria or viruses that, in turn, may cause pneumonia, including:

Dr. Budev stressed the importance of flu shots, in particular, as well as hygiene because the flu itself can leave people vulnerable to more serious infections.

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“The flu can be prevented,” says Dr. Budev. “Antibiotics can’t fight off viruses, so in some severe cold and flu cases they will be ineffective. People just need to get a flu shot in preparation for the flu season months of January and February; people need to consistently wash their hands to prevent contraction and spreading of the infection.”

More on pneumococcal vaccines

The pneumococcal vaccine is a shot that helps protect against some of the more than 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria, according to the CDC. There are two pneumococcal vaccines for different age and risk groups, including vaccines:

1.) For children — called pneumococcal conjugate vaccine

2.) For all adults 65 years and older (and also anyone at high risk for disease who is over age 2) — called pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine

For more information about vaccines to help prevent pneumonia, it’s important to talk to your doctor.

More information

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