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Breathe Easy: A Family’s Guide to Pneumonia

12/30/2013 22:00 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

Cold and flu season can hit kids and their families hard. As the season wears on, immunity systems become more compromised and illnesses can sneak their way into your home.

But what happens when an illness more serious than a cold or the flu presents itself? According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 1.1 million cases of pneumonia were acquired in the United States last year. The highest percentages of these cases were found in small children and the elderly.

By learning how to identify the different types of pneumonia, how to treat it and how to prevent it, your family will breathe more easily this winter.

Types of Pneumonia

Most pneumonia in children is termed “community acquired pneumonia” (CAP) as it is not contracted in a health care environment, such as a hospital. The causes of CAP are broken down into three categories:

Viral pneumonia

Viral pneumonia, as the name suggests, is caused by a viral infection of some sort. The American Lung Association notes that most pneumonia in very young children is caused by viral infections. In children under age 1, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of pneumonia. In older children, most cases of pneumonia are caused by untreated influenza.

Bacterial pneumonia

Many different bacterial infections can cause pneumonia. Outside of hospitals, streptococcus pneumoniae and pneumococcal pneumonia are the most common sources of bacterial pneumonia. Although much more rare in children, bacterial pneumonia can be just as serious.

Atypical pneumonia

Sometimes other situations lead to a case of pneumonia. These cases that do not fall into one of the two main causes of pneumonia are deemed “atypical.” Aspirating food, congenital diseases and allergens can all contribute to a case of pneumonia. The most common “atypical” pneumonia is mycoplasma pneumonia.

Mycoplasma pneumonia, also called “walking pneumonia” due to its sometimes milder symptoms that allow the afflicted to continue their day to day routines, is caused by bacteria called mycoplasmas. Mycoplasma pneumonia is contagious and, even when treated, lasts much longer than other types of pneumonia.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The initial symptoms of pneumonia often look just like the flu or a common cold. Fever, chills, cough, and nasal congestion frequently present prior to diagnosis. In some patients, however, the only symptom displayed is unusually rapid breathing or breathing accompanied by grunting or wheezing sounds. Oftentimes, loss of appetite (in older kids) or poor feeding (in infants) will be present and may lead to dehydration. A sore throat, headache or rash can be symptoms of mycoplasma pneumonia.

Onset of pneumonia can be gradual or rapid, depending on what causes it. In either case, a doctor will be able to hear the telltale “crackling” or “wet” lung sounds upon examining your child.

If the doctor suspects pneumonia, they will order a chest X-ray for confirmation before treatment begins. They will also want to monitor your child’s oxygen level. If these levels fall too low, your pediatrician may admit your child to the hospital to monitor their treatment.

Treatments

Bacterial pneumonia, including mycoplasma pneumonia, can be treated using one of several antibiotics. In order to alleviate secondary symptoms, an inhaler or nebulizer may be necessary.

Viral pneumonia cannot be cured with antibiotics, although an antibiotic may be prescribed to offset secondary infections. This type of pneumonia generally requires nebulizer breathing treatments and possible steroid intervention to alleviate symptoms and heal the lungs.

With treatment, most types of bacterial pneumonia can be cured within 1 to 2 weeks. Viral pneumonia may last a bit longer and mycoplasma pneumonia may take 4 to 6 weeks to resolve completely.

Reducing Your Child’s Risk

Pneumonia can be prevented, in many cases, by ensuring that your child’s vaccines are up to date. Pneumococcal, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), pertussis (whooping cough), varicella (chickenpox), measles, and flu vaccines can help you sidestep some of the many illnesses that lead to pneumonia.

Additionally, encouraging hygienic practices such as regular hand washing and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into an elbow or sleeve can help you reduce the spreading of germs to or between children.

Pneumonia seems scary, but most cases that are treated promptly and appropriately are quickly resolved. Treating illnesses before they have a chance to progress into pneumonia will give your child the upper hand. If you notice signs or symptoms of the flu or RSV, consult your child’s doctor. If you are concerned, go with your gut. It can only take a few days for pneumonia to set in and a mild cough on Thursday evening can turn into a bad case of pneumonia come Monday morning.

Beth N. Davis writes from Silver Spring, MD where she and her husband are raising their four children.

Parenting, In Print, Today, Today health sick oregon family flu season january 2014 issue illness pneumonia colds
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