- Q: Can the flu turn into pneumonia?
- 3 Ways to Tell the Difference Between the Flu and Pneumonia
- Pneumonia Symptoms and Diagnosis
- What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
- How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?
- Preventing Pneumonia
- Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?
- What You Need to Know About the Flu and Preventing Sepsis
- Influenza is serious
- Influenza is a virus
- Influenza is not a “bad cold”
- Influenza spreads easily
- Preventing influenza
- Influenza and sepsis
- What Is The Connection Between Influenza and Pneumonia?
- How to Spot Pneumonia Symptoms: What Seems Like a Cold or Flu Could Be More Serious
- How to Keep the Flu from Turning Into Pneumonia
- Can a cold or the flu turn into pneumonia?
- Just A Cold, Or Something More? How To Prevent Your Cold From Becoming Pneumonia
- Supplements To Help Prevent Your Cold From Becoming Pneumonia
- Keep a Common Cold Out of Your Lungs—Especially If You Have Asthma
Q: Can the flu turn into pneumonia?
A: Absolutely. The flu can become pneumonia. In fact, about one-third of all pneumonia cases in this country are caused by respiratory viruses, most commonly influenza. As Jason Turowski, MD, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic, puts it, “viruses set up shop and basically wreak havoc on your lungs.” Besides influenza, other causes of pneumonia include bacteria and, less commonly, fungi or parasites.
Pneumonia, an infection that causes inflammation in the lungs, affects millions of Americans each year. It is often mild and generally responds well to treatment, but it can be life-threatening, especially for the very young, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions.
“The lung is a large organ, and it’s a vital organ,” says Gerard Criner, MD, co-director of the Center for Inflammation, Translational and Clinical Lung Research at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. “If it gets infected and it compromises the primary function to support ventilation, that’s a big contributor to morbidity and mortality.”
Once pneumonia-causing organisms invade lung tissues, air sacs in the lungs called alveoli fill up with fluids and pus, making it hard to breathe. Symptoms include cough, fever, fatigue, and nausea. Other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) raise the risk of developing pneumonia.
Pneumonia that develops from exposure to germs through day-to-day social interaction is known as community-acquired pneumonia, which is the most common form. Hospital-acquired pneumonia refers to patients who become infected in a healthcare facility. “Health providers can inadvertently relocate from one patient to the next or spread it,” Dr. Criner explains.
Walking or atypical pneumonia is a less severe form of bacterial pneumonia, in which “the symptoms are mild, and you’re not bedridden,” says Dr. Turowski. But even a mild form of the illness should not be ignored. Walking pneumonia symptoms can easily be mistaken for the flu, but there are some differences to be aware of: If symptoms persist more than a week and worsen, breathing is rapid and difficult, or you have chest pains, then it could be pneumonia.
A doctor usually can spot pneumonia by listening to your lungs or looking at a chest x-ray. Blood tests can help identify the organism causing the infection, as can a sputum test in which fluid from the lungs is analyzed.
What medication is prescribed to treat pneumonia depends on the cause of infection: antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia, antiviral medications for some types of viral pneumonia, and antifungal drugs if the pneumonia is traced to fungi.
There are some simple things you can do to reduce your risk of developing pneumonia:
Practice good hygiene. Simple precautions such as washing your hands frequently, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and disposing of used tissues cut down exposure and spread of germs.
Don’t smoke. “Smokers are at a much greater risk of getting pneumonia because the protective mechanisms that your lungs set up to escalate debris out of your lungs are just paralyzed by tobacco,” Turowski says.
Get vaccinated. A flu shot can protect you against getting the flu in the first place and help avoid influenza-related pneumonia. In fact, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that patients with flu-associated pneumonia were less likely to have received an influenza vaccination. Similarly, the pneumococcal vaccine offers protection against one of the most common causes of bacterial pneumonia.
A new study published in the journal Heart Rhythm suggests that getting a flu shot may also reduce your risk for developing atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes irregular heart rhythms.
Put simply, Turowski says that getting vaccinated “is the most important thing you can do.”
Do you have a health-related question for Dr. Gupta? You can submit it here. For more health news and advice, visit Health Matters With Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
3 Ways to Tell the Difference Between the Flu and Pneumonia
A cough is also a major symptom of pneumonia, but it has a different nature. A pneumonia cough tends to be productive, bringing up dark-colored phlegm that may contain blood, says Dr. Lovell. Pneumonia is characterized mainly by respiratory symptoms, says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles—that includes shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
If it’s the flu, symptoms are usually far more severe, says Dr. Scott.
How quickly did your symptoms show up?
It’s very common for flu symptoms—fever, muscle aches, stuffy nose, sore throat, etc.—to arrive so suddenly that it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment all your misery began, says Kimberly Brown, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine doctor in Memphis.
Pneumonia, in contrast, typically has a less dramatic entry, with symptoms ramping up over several days, says Dr. Lovell.
RELATED: Bronchitis vs. Pneumonia: How to Tell the Difference
What does your doctor say?
Seeing tons of patients gives doctors a knack for knowing which disease is which. “Sometimes patients come in and they just look like the flu,” says Dr. Brown—the air of misery, along with the runny nose, is a giveaway even before she asks about symptoms.
Doctors also use diagnostic tools. Listening to the lungs or taking a chest X-ray can reveal signs of pneumonia.
“There is a nasal swab test that can determine if you have the actual flu virus,” says Dr. Scott.
When it comes to viruses—either viral pneumonia or the flu—there’s not much doctors can do to help, with one big exception. If you have the flu, and get to the doctor right after you notice your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication—like Tamiflu—to lessen the course and severity of symptoms, says Dr. Scott.
The catch? Antivirals are only effective if you use them ASAP—within one to two days of the onset of symptoms. And taking Tamiflu isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience; side effects can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. “The side effects may be worse than your actual flu symptoms!” says Dr. Brown.
Even if you miss the window for antivirals, it’s still worth it to get a diagnosis, says Dr. Scott. A doctor’s visit is an opportunity to rule out complications of the flu or the possibility you have another disease (like pneumonia), he says. And, if you have vulnerable members in your home—like an elderly person, for instance—they might want to take Tamiflu as a preventive measure, he says.
And what about if you think you have pneumonia? That’s trickier. You’ll need to visit the doctor if you have bacterial pneumonia to get a prescription for antibiotics. That’s not necessary for viral pneumonia, which you mostly have to wait out while treating the symptoms.
Dr. Brown’s advice: “If you are concerned about any of your symptoms, you should see a physician right away.”
If it turns out you have either viral pneumonia or the flu (and didn’t take Tamiflu), doctors typically recommend supportive care: Rest up, drink lots of fluids, and manage your symptoms with over-the-counter medications. Consider this further evidence that your grandma’s advice to have some chicken soup when you’re feeling under the weather is sound policy.
RELATED: 13 Home Remedies for Bronchitis That Might Finally Ease Your Cough
Common sense—and vaccinations—are the best prevention tactics
The flu is one of the viruses that can cause pneumonia, says Dr. Lovell. Here’s why: All of those secretions from your stuffy nose, combined with the dehydration that often accompanies the flu, create an environment where bacteria can multiply too fast for your body to defeat, potentially leading to bacterial pneumonia, explains Dr. Scott.
If you didn’t get a flu shot yet, head to the doctor’s office or pharmacy stat. “Vaccinations for both the flu and pneumonia save lives and decrease hospitalizations,” says Dr. Lovell.
For healthy people, a flu shot reduces your chances of getting the flu, says Dr. Scott. And while it’s still possible to get the flu even after a vaccination, the shot will lessen both symptoms and how long the flu lingers, Dr. Scott says. Vaccines can also help prevent the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia, says Dr. Lovell. (These are usually recommended for young children, older adults, and people with certain underlying health conditions.)
Along with getting vaccinated, consider having a hands-off policy during this germ-heavy season, avoiding hugs and handshakes, says Dr. Scott, and wash your hands frequently (and especially after handshakes). This will help you avoid getting sick. Wipe down potentially germ-covered surfaces at home and work, says Dr. Brown. And, adds Dr. Lovell: Drink lots of water and maintain good nutrition.
RELATED: Why Do Some People Die From Pneumonia?
Wash your hands and get vaccinated for the flu (and check with your doctor about pneumonia vaccinations) to ward off these two diseases.
And if you are generally in good health and under 65, don’t get overly stressed if those preventive measures don’t work and you do contract the flu or pneumonia. Both diseases can be very serious, says Dr. Brown, but, she adds, “the vast majority of healthy people do well with treating the flu or pneumonia outside of the hospital.”
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Pneumonia Symptoms and Diagnosis
Pneumonia is an infection that inflames your lungs’ air sacs (alveoli). The air sacs may fill up with fluid or pus, causing symptoms such as a cough, fever, chills and trouble breathing.
What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
Pneumonia symptoms can vary from so mild you barely notice them, to so severe that hospitalization is required. How your body responds to pneumonia depends on the type germ causing the infection, your age and your overall health.
The signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:
- Cough, which may produce greenish, yellow or even bloody mucus
- Fever, sweating and shaking chills
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
- Loss of appetite, low energy, and fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting, especially in small children
- Confusion, especially in older people
Questions about your symptoms?
Talk to our experts at the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine. Our service is free and we are here to help you by phone, web chat or email.
Bacterial pneumonia, which is the most common form, tends to be more serious than other types of pneumonia, with symptoms that require medical care. The symptoms of bacterial pneumonia can develop gradually or suddenly. Fever may rise as high as a dangerous 105 degrees F, with profuse sweating and rapidly increased breathing and pulse rate. Lips and nailbeds may have a bluish color due to lack of oxygen in the blood. A patient’s mental state may be confused or delirious.
The symptoms of viral pneumonia usually develop over a period of several days. Early symptoms are similar to influenza symptoms: fever, a dry cough, headache, muscle pain, and weakness. Within a day or two, the symptoms typically get worse, with increasing cough, shortness of breath and muscle pain. There may be a high fever and there may be blueness of the lips.
Symptoms may vary in certain populations. Newborns and infants may not show any signs of the infection. Or, they may vomit, have a fever and cough, or appear restless, sick, or tired and without energy. Older adults and people who have serious illnesses or weak immune systems may have fewer and milder symptoms. They may even have a lower than normal temperature. Older adults who have pneumonia sometimes have sudden changes in mental awareness. For individuals that already have a chronic lung disease, those symptoms may worsen.
When to call a doctor
If you think you or your child has symptoms of pneumonia, don’t wait for the disease to get even worse before you seek care. Call your doctor. And see your doctor right away if you have difficulty breathing, develop a bluish color in your lips and fingertips, have chest pain, a high fever, or a cough with mucus that is severe or is getting worse.
It’s especially important to get medical attention for pneumonia if you are in a high-risk group, including adults older than age 65, children age two or younger, people with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system. For some of these vulnerable individuals, pneumonia can quickly become a life-threatening condition.
How Is Pneumonia Diagnosed?
Sometimes pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are so variable, and are often very similar to those seen in a cold or influenza. To diagnose pneumonia, and to try to identify the germ that is causing the illness, your doctor will ask questions about your medical history, do a physical exam, and run some tests.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your signs and symptoms, and how and when they began. To help figure out if your infection is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, you may be asked some questions about possible exposures, such as:
- Any recent travel
- Your occupation
- Contact with animals
- Exposure to other sick people at home, work or school
- Whether you have recently had another illness
Your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. If you have pneumonia, your lungs may make crackling, bubbling, and rumbling sounds when you inhale.
If your doctor suspects you may have pneumonia, they will probably recommend some tests to confirm the diagnosis and learn more about your infection. These may include:
- Blood tests to confirm the infection and to try to identify the germ that is causing your illness.
- Chest X-ray to look for the location and extent of inflammation in your lungs.
- Pulse oximetry to measure the oxygen level in your blood. Pneumonia can prevent your lungs from moving enough oxygen into your bloodstream.
- Sputum test on a sample of mucus (sputum) taken after a deep cough, to look for the source of the infection.
If you are considered a high-risk patient because of your age and overall health, or if you are hospitalized, the doctors may want to do some additional tests, including:
- CT scan of the chest to get a better view of the lungs and look for abscesses or other complications.
- Arterial blood gas test, to measure the amount of oxygen in a blood sample taken from an artery, usually in your wrist. This is more accurate than the simpler pulse oximetry.
- Pleural fluid culture, which removes a small amount of fluid from around tissues that surround the lung, to analyze and identify bacteria causing the pneumonia.
- Bronchoscopy, a procedure used to look into the lungs’ airways. If you are hospitalized and your treatment is not working well, doctors may want to see whether something else is affecting your airways, such as a blockage. They may also take fluid samples or a biopsy of lung tissue.
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Come flu season, every person of all ages is at risk of influenza. Every region across the world is susceptible to the contagious respiratory illness. Being different than a common cold, the flu can take effect suddenly and can range from mild to severe in illness.
While many sick with the flu tend to recover within two weeks, some people can develop complications.
One of those complications can lead to pneumonia. According to Everyday Health, one-third of pneumonia cases develop from a respiratory virus, with the flu the most common of those.
Even if you’ve only contracted a mild case of influenza, the infection can severely weaken your immune system. Keep in mind that the virus even keeps your body from correctly taking in air.
According to Shape, the flu constricts and inflames the airways in your body. This would then, “slow down the movement of air and hinder your ability to clear mucus and secretions.” This inflammation can cause an increase in your body’s mucus production.
A buildup of bacteria would then form in your healthy body. Although the body would usually be able to fight the buildup away, influenza changes that. With a weakened immune system, your body may not be able to get over the foreign bacteria and viruses.
This is how those with influenza can easily turn their flu into something much worse — pneumonia.
Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the lungs. Severe coughing, a high fever, and difficulty breathing are the first symptoms. While it affects millions worldwide, it is generally mild and can be treated with medicine.
Although, pneumonia can be deadly for those with chronic conditions, those who smoke regularly, young children, and the elderly. According to the CDC, pneumonia is the, “leading infectious cause of death in children younger than 5 years old worldwide.”
Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Depending on which kind of pneumonia you contract, then you’ll need ether antibiotics or antivirals.
If you think your flu is turning into pneumonia, doctors can do a few tests to determine the best treatment. Doctors can rely on simple tests, like listening to your breathing, to get the right treatment. More severe tests include x-rays and blood cultures to narrow down your type of pneumonia.
With all this in mind about the flu turning into pneumonia, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your case of the flu doesn’t take a turn for the worse.
First off, getting vaccinated against the flu can help protect you against influenza. The best way to avoid a flu virus that becomes pneumonia is to stay flu-free. In The Journal of the American Medical Association, a study determined patients with pneumonia from the flu usually didn’t receive the flu shot.
Stay on top of flu season by getting a flu vaccination and you can also get the pneumococcal vaccine to cover the bases of attracting bacterial pneumonia.
Other basic immune boosting habits can also help prevent respiratory infections. Maintain healthy sleep habits and constantly wash your hands. Droplets from an infected person can also quickly spread the virus. Make sure to cover your mouth when coughing and don’t share drinking items.
If you’re being diligent about these habits and you’ve received your annual flu shot, then you are armed and prepared for flu season.
Did you know there were different types of pneumonia? Let us know in the comments, or via Facebook and Twitter.
Written for Passport Health by Brianna Malotke. Brianna is a freelance writer and costume designer located in Illinois. She’s an avid coffee drinker and enjoys researching new topics for writing.
Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?
Yes. You can reduce your risk of getting pneumonia by following a few simple steps. Here’s how:
- Get a flu shot every year to prevent seasonal influenza. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so preventing the flu is a good way to prevent pneumonia.
- Children younger than 5 and adults 65 and older should get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia, a common form of bacterial pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended for all children and adults who are at increased risk of pneumococcal disease due to other health conditions. There are two types of pneumococcal vaccine. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if one of them is right for you.
- There are several other vaccines that can prevent infections by bacteria and viruses that may lead to pneumonia, including pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox and measles. Please talk to your doctor about whether you and your children are up to date on your vaccines and to determine if any of these vaccines are appropriate for you.
Wash Your Hands
Wash your hands frequently, especially after blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, diapering, and before eating or preparing foods.
Tobacco damages your lung’s ability to fight off infection, and smokers have been found to be at higher risk of getting pneumonia. Smokers are considered one of the high-risk groups that are encouraged to get the pneumococcal vaccine.
Be Aware of Your General Health
- Since pneumonia often follows respiratory infections, be aware of any symptoms that linger more than a few days.
- Good health habits—a healthy diet, rest, regular exercise, etc.—help you from getting sick from viruses and respiratory illnesses. They also help promote fast recovery when you do get a cold, the flu or other respiratory illness.
If you have children, talk to their doctor about:
- Hib vaccine, which prevents pneumonia in children from Haemophilus influenza type b
- A drug called Synagis (palivizumab), which is given to some children younger than 24 months to prevent pneumonia caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
If you have cancer or HIV, talk to your doctor about additional ways to prevent pneumonia and other infections.
Talk to our experts at the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine. Our service is free and we are here to help you by phone, web chat or email.
What You Need to Know About the Flu and Preventing Sepsis
January 11, 2018
This year’s seasonal flu (influenza) is hitting North America particularly hard. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) January 8 FluView report, 46 states are now reporting widespread flu activity, with 26 states reporting high activity.
Many people refer to stomach or gastrointestinal upsets as the stomach flu or a 24-hour flu, however these illnesses are not influenza. The flu is a serious, contagious respiratory infection and isn’t related to the gastrointestinal tract. Many people who have the flu are sick for 7 to 10 days or longer, and it’s not unusual to experience problems like a persistent cough and fatigue for weeks after. Influenza can also cause serious complications like pneumonia. The CDC reports that since the beginning of October, there have been almost 4,000 people hospitalized with confirmed influenza. This works out to 13.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.
Influenza is serious
Most people who must be admitted to the hospital for flu-related problems are 50 years old or older and children younger than five years old, but the flu can affect individuals at any age and can cause sepsis, resulting in severe complications or death. This month alone, there were news reports of a previously healthy 48-year-old navy veteran who was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) with sepsis following the flu, and a 21-year-old who died after Christmas. He was studying to be a fitness trainer.
Influenza is a virus
There is no cure for the flu and ince the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics don’t help treat the infection. There are antiviral medications that may shorten the course of the flu or lessen the severity of the symptoms, but they must be taken within few days of the first signs of illness for the drug to be effective. Treatment for the flu focuses on easing the symptoms, such as lowering the fever, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration, and resting to allow your body to heal.
Influenza is not a “bad cold”
Since the flu is a respiratory virus, some people mistaken the onset for a bad cold. Some of the symptoms are similar, including a cough, sore throat, and a stuffy nose. However, flu symptoms also include muscle and body aches, fever, headache, and fatigue. Young children may vomit and have diarrhea. Flu symptoms also come on very suddenly.
Influenza spreads easily
Influenza is a highly contagious infection, caught when the virus comes in contact with the mucus membranes in your nose. This could occur if someone coughs or sneezes near you, spreading contaminated droplets that you breathe. But the virus can also live on hard surfaces, such as door knobs and hand rails, for up to three days. If you come in contact with the virus and you touch your face, you could infect yourself.
Like the common cold, you can’t become immune to influenza because there are so many strains of the virus. Every year, scientists try to develop an effective seasonal flu vaccine to protect people as the virus makes its way around the world. Unfortunately, trying to find which strain of the flu will be the one that spreads is not an exact science and some years, the vaccine is not as successful as others. This year, for example, there are reports the vaccine may be only 10% effective. However, doctors are still urging people to be vaccinated because this may lessen the severity of the flu and shorten its duration even if you do become ill.
Aside from getting an annual flu vaccine, you can reduce your risk of getting the flu by washing your hands frequently, using either soap and water or waterless products. If you have the flu, stay at home to prevent further spread of the virus. Cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand to reduce the risk of leaving the virus where others may touch it.
Influenza and sepsis
Millions of people around the world get the flu and after the virus runs its course, they get better. However, influenza is one of the most common causes of pneumonia, which itself is a common trigger for sepsis. If you know someone who has the flu, watch closely for any symptoms that may indicate that they are getting worse instead of better. If you see two or more of these symptoms, seek emergency medical help as soon as possible and say, “I am concerned about sepsis.” The symptoms include:
S – Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
E – Extreme pain or general discomfort (“worst ever”)
P – Pale or discolored skin
S – Sleepiness, difficulty rousing, confusion
I – “I feel like I might die” feeling
S – Short of breath
Flu season lasts until the spring, so it’s not too late to be vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect and remember, you cannot get influenza from the vaccine itself. You can learn more about sepsis and the flu here.
What Is The Connection Between Influenza and Pneumonia?
Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious viral infection that is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. Influenza is spread easily from person to person, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Pneumonia is a serious infection or inflammation of the lungs. The air sacs fill with pus and other liquid, blocking oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. If there is too little oxygen in the blood, the body’s cells cannot work properly, which can lead to death.
Influenza is a common cause of pneumonia, especially among younger children, the elderly, pregnant women, or those with certain chronic health conditions or who live in a nursing home. Most cases of flu never lead to pneumonia, but those that do tend to be more severe and deadly. In fact, flu and pneumonia were the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2016.
For both influenza and some types of pneumonia there are protective vaccines, although none are 100 percent protective. As flu strains change each year, it is necessary to get a flu vaccination each season to make sure you are protected against the most current strains. Pneumonia vaccinations are usually only necessary once, although a booster vaccination may be recommended for some individuals. Ask your healthcare provider if you are up to date on your vaccinations and to determine if any additional vaccinations are right for you.
- Learn more about preventing influenza and pneumonia, or find a flu vaccine near you using the Flu Vaccine Finder.
How to Spot Pneumonia Symptoms: What Seems Like a Cold or Flu Could Be More Serious
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Everyone has those days when they’re feeling under the weather but can’t quite identify why. It’s easy to take a sick day or two and sleep off your ill health, but what if you’re ignoring something more serious than your average bug? The symptoms of a common cold or the flu can be very similar to pneumonia symptoms, and it’s important to know when to call your doctor.
In the spectrum of respiratory illnesses, the flu is generally worse than the common cold. Pneumonia, meanwhile, can be more serious than both, especially for young children and the elderly. In order to identify what is ailing you or a loved one, it’s best to evaluate each individual symptom you’re experiencing. This process can go a long way toward deciding whether it’s time to seek medical attention.
“Pneumonia might come from a complication of a cold or flu, so it’s not always easy to separate the illnesses,” says Dr. Sara Peña, program director of the family medicine center at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “But there are differences between all three that can help you tell what you’re dealing with.”
Colds tend to come on gradually, and the flu registers suddenly. “The flu’s symptoms can arise quickly due to typical fever-induced body aches and chills, which cause the muscles and joints to ache,” says Dr. Peña. Pneumonia tends to make you feel suddenly worse following what you thought was just a cold or flu.
A fever is usually indicative of the flu, while a cold will likely produce other nonfever symptoms. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that the fever associated with pneumonia can be either mild or high, with the highest fevers often accompanying bacterial pneumonia. A pneumonia-derived fever can either be persistent or episodic, with a tendency to rise rapidly. It may seem to go away before eventually coming back worse. Be on the lookout for shaking chills, as well.
Coughing is a common symptom of all three illnesses, but a specific type of cough indicates pneumonia. A pneumonia-derived cough is persistent, worsening, and classically blood-tinged if bacterial, but viral pneumonia typically causes a nonproductive cough. Pneumonia may also carry a cough that initially starts off dry before producing mucus after a few days, according to the ALA.
Aches, Pains, and Fatigue
Muscle and body aches, headaches, and fatigue are telltale symptoms of the flu, but they can also indicate pneumonia. Chest pain is usually the major indicator, particularly if you experience labored breathing or a persistent cough. Sharp pains can result from inflammation of the lung or chest lining; this is known as pleurisy.
With the right treatment, you should typically recover from pneumonia in a matter of days or weeks, but you might suffer from fatigue for a month or more. Doctors will likely recommend a follow-up appointment to make sure the infection is clearing. Both the common cold and the flu tend to clear up within two weeks when treated properly.
When to Call a Doctor
Persistent symptoms over a period of a few days is the main warning sign of pneumonia and should determine if you seek medical care. According to Dr. Peña, “You should call the doctor if you have an ongoing fever that isn’t helped from taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Generally, if there is no improving trend from an illness you earlier considered to be a cold or flu, it’s recommended to get yourself checked out.”
It isn’t easy to differentiate between the effects of a cold or flu and what may be pneumonia symptoms. Generally, if your symptoms worsen or last a long time, make sure to connect with your doctor, who will determine the most effective course of treatment.
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.
“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.
“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.
How to Keep the Flu from Turning Into Pneumonia
The flu, though, weakens your immune system, he says. (Pneumonia is more common in people with compromised immune systems-children, the elderly, pregnant women, smokers, or people with chronic illnesses.) Specifically, a constricted airway and inflammation can slow down the movement of air and hinder your ability to clear mucus and secretions.
Think of dusting your home: “If you dust a little each day, there is no buildup and your house stays relatively dust-free,” he says. “If you now have difficulty dusting for some reason, the dust, or in this case, the mucus, secretions, and bacteria, start to build up.”
It’s this inflammation, increased mucus production, and less overall cleanup that create the perfect breeding ground for other viruses and bacteria to spread. Since pneumonia is an infection of your lungs, if you have it, you might notice a persistent, productive cough (mucus or phlegm comes out), sometimes with yellow-green phlegm; chest pain, particularly during deep breathing; shortness of breath doing things that wouldn’t otherwise leave you winded; overall fatigue and malaise; and a fever, says Greenspan.
It’s crucial to call your doc if you think you could have pneumonia. Depending on what type of pneumonia you have (bacteria or viral), you’ll likely need either antibiotics (for bacterial) or antivirals (for viral), he says. Docs can often ID pneumonia by listening to your lungs, but they might also order an X-ray, pulmonary function test, and blood or sputum cultures to ID the cause and better steer treatment.
What’s your best bet for avoiding flu-related pneumonia? Number one: Get the flu shot (no, it’s not too late) to avoid the flu in the first place. Also, do all you can to avoid respiratory infections in general, which means keeping up with immune-boosting habits like sleep as well as being diligent about basic hygiene. “Frequent hand washing is your single best defense against introducing viruses or bacteria into your system,” says Greenspan. “You really need to be washing your hands each and every time you come in contact with a potential source of infection.” And right now, that means way more times than just before you eat or after you go to the bathroom.
Can a cold or the flu turn into pneumonia?
Posted December 31, 2019
Every year, millions of Americans are diagnosed with pneumonia. Although there are many causes, about 33% of people get pneumonia from a cold or flu virus. Catching pneumonia at an early stage is key to a quick recovery. Know the symptoms, treatment and prevention. Because it’s true. A cold or the flu can turn into pneumonia.
Pneumonia is described as inflammation of the lungs. Often bacteria from a cold or the flu will settle in the lungs. This creates an infection and produces pneumonia.
Here are nine signs:
- extreme fatigue
- loss of appetite
- headaches and confusion
- spitting up thick mucus or blood when coughing
- breathing difficulty
- chills and high fever
- sweating and clammy skin
- painful breathing or coughing
- nausea and diarrhea
Many of these symptoms are like those experienced with a cold or the flu. However, a good rule of thumb is to consult your doctor if:
- symptoms persist for more than a week
- symptoms become more intense
- breathing and coughing become painful
Most people diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia have mild symptoms. If this is the case, it easily can be treated with antibiotics designed to kill the infection. But if pneumonia isn’t caught at an early stage, it can become life-threatening. Pneumonia especially can be dangerous for children, seniors or adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. People with chronic pneumonia must receive specialized care.
Consider three ways to reduce the risk of pneumonia:
- vaccine – A flu shot can protect people from the flu and common bacterial pneumonia.
- behavior – Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Use a tissue to capture germs, so others aren’t exposed. Dispose of the tissue and wash your hands.
- avoid smoking – People who smoke are at increased risk for developing pneumonia. Medical professionals say that tobacco can scar the lungs and damage tissues that fight germs.
Read these blogs to learn more:
- Avoid catching a cold or the flu when flying
- Why you develop a chronic cough
Just A Cold, Or Something More? How To Prevent Your Cold From Becoming Pneumonia
With cold and flu season knocking on your door, you may be wondering how to tell if that cold is becoming something worse. Many people will skip the doctor for what they believe is just a cold because there is no real treatment available.
However, many colds can become pneumonia if left untreated, especially for seniors. Pneumonia is a condition that often causes patients to be hospitalized for several days and is even more dangerous for the very young or very old.
Supplements To Help Prevent Your Cold From Becoming Pneumonia
To prevent your cold from becoming pneumonia, here are a few things you should take (remember to always speak with your physician first before adding any supplements to your health regimen):
Many people know the benefits of Vitamin C in the treatment and prevention of colds. This same vitamin can help prevent your cold from becoming deadly.
While the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C is only between 40 and 120 mg, to prevent pneumonia it is recommended that you take at least 1 full gram of Vitamin C each day.
You may choose to eat a large amount of citrus fruits to get your recommended daily dosage or take a Vitamin C supplement to help reach your recommended intake. If you are suffering from a cold, Vitamin C cough drops can help you reach your needed amount of Vitamin C.
Recent studies have shown that a majority of people suffer from zinc deficiency. This can cause your immune system to become weakened.
Signs of zinc deficiency are:
- hair loss
- impaired taste and smell
- loss of appetite
Taking a zinc supplement that contains at least 30 mg of zinc each day can cut your risk of contracting pneumonia in half. If you happen to contract pneumonia, zinc is shown to relieve the inflammation and obstruction in the lungs and airways.
Natural And Herbal Preventatives
In addition to vitamins and mineral supplements, there are a variety of herbal remedies that may prevent your cold from becoming pneumonia. One such natural preventative is a compound of herbs including Barberry Root Bark, Oregon Grape Root, and Goldenseal.
This compound has many antibacterial properties that can stop your cold in its tracks. You will also want to include a natural probiotic compound in your daily routine. This compound will help to build up the good bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract which will help to support your immune system in fighting off the cold.
See More In Our Healthy Living Blogs!
Chief Operating Officer, The Compounding Pharmacy of America
Matthew Poteet, Pharm.D. graduated with Honors from Lee University with a Bachelors of Science in Biological Science. After his undergraduate training, he completed the Doctor of Pharmacy program at Mercer University Southern School of Pharmacy, graduating in 2004. Dr. Poteet has spent much of his pharmacy career on staff at two of the most prestigious academic teaching hospitals in the Southeast; Emory University in Atlanta and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. At these institutions he received extensive experience and training in sterile products compounding.
He returned home to East Tennessee in 2010, where he has held the position of Pharmacy Director at two sterile products pharmacies in Knoxville. Matthew lives in Knoxville with his wife, Chris. Dr. Poteet is Tennessee’s first Board Certified Anti-Aging Pharmacist by the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
Read More About Matthew Poteet, PharmD
Keep a Common Cold Out of Your Lungs—Especially If You Have Asthma
If you’re prone to bronchitis or pneumonia or have asthma, you may freak out any time someone near you coughs or sneezes, as viral droplets waft through the air, landing on pens, doorknobs, your clothes—or in your eyes or nose. You may pull out all the stops to prevent getting sick, but what if, despite your best efforts, you get snagged by a head cold? Here’s how to keep that cold from taking over your lungs.
KEEP A COLD OUT OF YOUR CHEST
There are two ways that a head cold can burrow into your lungs, according to Richard Firshein, DO, director of the Firshein Center for Integrative Medicine in New York City. One is just that the same virus causing the head cold moves from the nose and throat to the lungs. The other is that another infection—usually bacterial—takes advantage of the weakened immune system. No matter what, you can avoid this one-two punch.
As soon as you feel the first symptoms of a cold coming on, Dr. Firshein recommends taking vitamin C and zinc. “This regimen is not a cure-all, but it will help shorten the duration of the problem, and, for many people, it will keep the immune system healthy enough to get through the head cold without it turning into a chest cold,” he said.
Dr. Firshein recommends at least 500 milligrams (mg) per day of vitamin C, taken in a split dose (250 mg twice per day) for three to five days. Don’t take more than 1,500 mg daily or you will risk side effects, such as painful kidney stones and soft stools or full-blown diarrhea. As for zinc, whether in lozenge or tablet form, Dr. Firshein recommends a dosage of 10 mg to 25 mg twice a day until symptoms clear. Be aware, though, that zinc lozenges and tablets can cause upset stomach or a metallic taste.
“Most people will do fine with vitamin C and zinc,” Dr. Firshein said, “but some people, such as the elderly and those with certain health conditions such as asthma or heart disease, may need to add other supplements to fortify their immune systems.” Dr. Firshein’s go-to supplements for people who need an extra boost include…
Echinacea. This herb, from the daisy family, has antioxidant and antiviral properties and fortifies the immune system against bacterial attack. In all, it can reduce the length and severity of colds. Dr. Firshein prefers a liquid extract dispensed by dropper and recommends formulations marketed by Herb Pharm and Gaia.
Cordyceps. Cordyceps is a potent immune-strengthening nutrient derived from a fungus that grows inside caterpillars that live high in the Himalayan mountains. It’s expensive…and natural cordyceps supplements can be hard to find. Dr. Firshein recommends these brands—Host Defense and Jarrow Formulas. He suggests a starting dosage of two 500-mg capsules once per day.
EXTRA DEFENSE FOR ASTHMATICS
If you have asthma, you especially want to guard against chest colds. The combination of swelling and mucus production from a chest cold makes breathing even more difficult. It can also bring on dangerous—and deadly—constriction of the airways (bronchospasms).
“People with asthma have to be more vigilant,” said Dr. Firshein. “They should use all of the vitamins and supplements mentioned above and fortify their immune systems with N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and magnesium.”
NAC is an antioxidant that can dissolve and loosen mucus, so it will help clear the airways. Dr. Firshein recommends a dosage of 250 mg twice a day. Magnesium is a natural bronchodilator, so it will also help open up the airways. Again, Dr. Firshein recommends 250 mg twice a day.
As a final word to the wise, Dr. Firshein urges that you see a doctor if your symptoms worsen instead of improve. Also see your doctor if an asthma attack occurs during a cold, if a bad cough doesn’t go away after other cold symptoms resolve or if your temperature climbs over 99.4°F.