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What is pneumonia?

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Pneumonia: what is it? 

Pneumonia is a condition that affects the air sacs in the lungs, causing them to swell and fill with fluid. Pneumonia can affect one or both lungs, and is notable for causing coughing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.

Usually, pneumonia is caused by a bacterial infection, however it can also be a complication of a viral infection such as the flu or COVID-19. For adults over 65, or those who have certain serious health conditions, an NHS pneumonia vaccine is available. At LloydsPharmacy we also have a pneumonia vaccination service which will be available later in the year.

You can find out more as we answer some of your commonly asked questions about pneumonia.

How do you get pneumonia?

In most cases, pneumonia is caused by a bacterial infection such as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Less commonly, pneumonia can occur as a complication of a viral infection such as the flu or COVID-19.

Other causes of pneumonia include:

  • Inhaling a harmful substance or foreign object into the lungs (aspiration pneumonia)
  • Receiving hospital treatment for another condition e.g. being on a ventilator (hospital-acquired pneumonia)
  • Fungi (fungal pneumonia)

Is pneumonia contagious?

Pneumonia isn’t contagious in itself. Rather, it’s the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia that can be contagious.

How do you know if you have pneumonia?

The symptoms of pneumonia are similar to the common cold or flu, but usually more severe. You might find that you become ill gradually, or suddenly feel very unwell.

Common symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Discoloured phlegm (yellow, green, brown or bloody)
  • Difficulty breathing, even when resting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating or shivering
  • Chest pain

Some people begin coughing up blood, or feel very confused and disorientated. If you think you may have pneumonia you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

How serious is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a life-threatening condition that can require hospitalisation. It is more likely to cause serious complications in babies and young children, elderly people, smokers, people with long-term health conditions, and people who have a weakened immune system.

Pneumonia can lead to complications such as pleurisy, lung abscess and sepsis. Even with treatment it can sometimes be fatal.

How do you treat pneumonia?

Pneumonia is usually treated with a course of antibiotics, as the cause is typically a bacterial infection. If your doctor suspects that it has been caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t be a suitable treatment.

Mild pneumonia can be treated by staying at home, getting plenty of rest, and drinking fluids to keep hydrated. Painkillers such a paracetamol and ibuprofen can also be taken to soothe symptoms such as chest pain.

In more severe cases, hospitalisation will be required. Your doctor may need to take a chest X-ray, and carry out blood or sputum tests to determine the cause of the pneumonia. Oxygen will be given to help you breathe and – if the cause is a bacterial infection – antibiotics will be administered, often through a drip.

What are the four stages of pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an illness that affects your lungs, the type of penumonai you’ll be diagnosed with depends upon the area of the lung which is affected. Lobar pneumonia affects the lobe of the lungs causing inflammation which, if left untreated, can be classified in four stages. The four stages of lobar pneumonia include:

Stage 1: Congestion

  • This stage happens in the first 24 hours
  • Lungs are heavy and red
  • Lungs are also boggy making it harder to breathe
  • Lots of bacteria is present

Stage 2: Red hepatisation

  • This stage begins 2 to 3 days after the first congestion stage
  • Lasts for 2 to 4 days
  • Lungs have a firm consistency
  • Lungs are dry and air-less

Stage 3: Gray hepatisation

  • Stage begins 2 to 3 days after third stage
  • Lasts up to 8 days
  • Lungs have changed from red to grey
  • The red blood cells inside the lungs are disintegrating

Stage 4: Resolution

  • Starts on the 8th day
  • The once solid lungs are now softer
  • Aeration of the lungs is restored

The main changes during these 4 stages is the colour of the lungs, which is something you won’t be able to see. But you will be able to notice the inflammation decreasing and airways increasing.

How long does pneumonia last?

If your pneumonia has been caused by a bacterial infection, taking antibiotics should help you feel better within a few days or weeks. However, it’s normal for symptoms such as coughing and breathlessness to persist – sometimes for months.

Recovery time will depend upon how severe your pneumonia is, your age, and your general health. After six months, most people who have had pneumonia will feel back to normal.

Watch the video below to discover the timelines of pneumonia symptoms:


Who should get the pneumonia vaccine?

You should get the pneumonia vaccine if you are:

  • Aged 65 or over
  • Living with a health condition such as COPD, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes or HIV
  • Having treatment that is suppressing your immune system

The NHS offer a free pneumonia vaccine to those most at risk, however at LloydsPharmacy we also have a pneumonia vaccination service which can help you stay protected.

Book your pneumonia jab

How long does a pneumonia jab last?

Most people will only need one dose of the pneumonia jab. In certain cases, booster doses will be needed – for instance, if you have a chronic kidney condition or you have had your spleen removed.

Recovering from pneumonia

Pneumonia is a serious illness, and it can take weeks or even months to completely recover from it. Your recovery time will also depend on how severe your pneumonia symptoms were and the type of treatments you had.

Recovery is gradual but there are a few things you can do to help overcome pneumonia. Your doctor will be able to create a treatment plan with you, but you can also follow our top recovery tips:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Keep hydrated
  • Eating a healthy balanced diet
  • Doing breathing exercises if your doctor says you can
  • Lightly exercising but don’t push yourself too hard