Preventing pneumonia

Many people seem to think that pneumonia is only a 'cold weather' phenomenon. In fact, in sunny and humid Singapore, pneumonia is one of the top three killer diseases, behind cancer and coronary heart disease.

It is an inflammation of the lungs usually caused by an infection. Most types of pneumonia are due to bacteria, but there are others caused by viruses, parasites and fungi.

Although pneumonia can kill, treatment will mostly lead to a good outcome.

Dr Chan Tiong Beng, a respiratory physician at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said that pneumonia can be caught just like an ordinary cold or flu as the bacteria causing it are all around us.

A cold is usually mild and gives rise to a runny nose, sneezing, nasal obstruction and sore throat. It is usually not accompanied by fever and is mostly caused by viruses.

However, pneumonia is serious as it carries the risk of fatality. Sufferers experience difficulty in breathing, chest discomfort and it is usually accompanied by high fever.

Dr Chan recalled that one of his patients, an 11-year-old boy, visited a cave while on holiday in Sarawak.

The boy stepped into a puddle of water which contained a very virulent pneumonia bacteria which went through the skin on his legs to the lungs, causing severe pneumonia.

After nearly two months in hospital, he recovered but lost about 30 per cent of his lung function.

In pneumonia, the air-filled sacs in the lungs are filled with pus and other fluids, making it difficult for oxygen to reach the blood. Breathing becomes difficult and the body's cells do not function properly.

Its typical symptoms include coughs, chest pain, fever and breathing difficulties.

Bacterial pneumonia is mainly treated with antibiotics. An associated risk is the development of drug resistance by the bacteria.

Streptococcus pneumonia, the most common bacteria causing pneumonia, has developed significant resistance to some anti-bacterial antibiotics.

Suction and drainage procedures may be required to take out the phlegm.

The preventive measures include keeping away from crowded places (especially places where people are known to have colds or the flu), getting pneumonia and flu vaccinations, leading a healthy lifestyle and washing your hands thoroughly.

This article was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.