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Understanding pneumonia

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By Dr. Jeff Daniels EBS Medical Columnist

On Sept. 11, the infection that we refer to as pneumonia made the headlines, when Hillary Clinton ignored her doctor’s advice to rest, and nearly collapsed in public. We learned from this widely broadcast episode that pneumonia is very common, and is not to be taken lightly.

Pneumonia refers to an infection deep inside the lung tissues, where spaces typically filled with air are now filled with inflammatory fluids and mucus. It is most commonly caused by bacteria, but may also be the result of a viral or fungal infection. Before the era of antibiotics, namely penicillin and sulfas introduced in the 1940s, pneumonia was the No. 1 killer in this country.

With our multitude of different antibiotics today, we have no problem curing the vast majority of these infections in kids and otherwise healthy adults. But those who are elderly and debilitated, or people whose immune system is compromised, often succumb to this disease.

There are two main varieties of pneumonia, whether caused by bacteria, a virus or fungus. One type causes an infection in a distinct anatomical lobe (or lobes) of one or both lungs. This is referred to as a “typical” pneumonia. But there are pneumonias that spread diffusely through all areas of both lungs and these are referred to as “atypical” pneumonias.

Believe it or not, there are very few types of pneumonia that are communicable. That is, you can’t catch pneumonia from someone who is suffering with this disease, unless it’s caused by the plague bacillus or anthrax (hopefully that will never happen!). You can also catch illnesses that predispose you to pneumonia, such as influenza, which is a virus that causes some people to more easily develop bacterial pneumonia.

Why isn’t pneumonia contagious? Most of the cases that we see occur because we constantly inhale bacteria and viruses deep into our lungs. Our lungs are equipped to get rid of the stuff that gets deep down, by a process of mucus production, immune defenses, and a conveyor belt system that pushes back up all the unwanted material in the pulmonary system.

Most of the time, we’re unaware of this amazing mucus cycle. Since we’re constantly inhaling germs that reside in the back of our throats, especially at night, if the system doesn’t work right a bacterial infection can set itself up. That’s how most of us develop pneumonia.

It’s like getting a splinter in your finger. Most of the time it comes right out and doesn’t fester, but occasionally you end up with a swollen finger filled with infection.

Pneumonia can be prevented by getting vaccinated for some of the most common causes of this disease, such as the pneumococcus bacteria. This bacterium normally lives in our throats, and there are multiple strains, each capable of causing pneumonia. Vaccines have been developed that are various mixtures of these strains, and it’s recommended for older adults. The childhood pneumococcus vaccine is aimed at preventing ear infections and meningitis in kids. Getting a flu shot also helps protect against catching pneumonia.

When a healthy adult develops pneumonia, and gets the right antibiotic to knock out the infection, I always tell them that they won’t feel back to normal for at least a month. That’s because this is no simple infection, like a cold. The body has to recuperate, and rest is an important aspect of the healing process.

You can get flu and pneumonia shots at the Medical Clinic of Big Sky, just walk in at your convenience.

Dr. Jeff Daniels was the recipient of the 2016 Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Chet Huntley Lifetime Achievement Award and has been practicing medicine in Big Sky since 1994, when he and his family moved here from New York City. A unique program he implements has attracted more than 700 medical students and young doctors to train with the Medical Clinic of Big Sky.

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