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Questions on pneumonia answered



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So what can you do to protect yourself? Dr. Philip Eng, senior respiratory consultant and ICU physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, answers questions about the condition.

What is pneumonia?

“Pneumonia is a common condition that affects people of all ages and genders,” explained Dr. Eng. “While many people associate pneumonia with the elderly, it is in fact the most common cause of death in children worldwide, and one of the top five causes of death in adults of all ages. Somewhere between 250,000 and five million people die from the condition every year.

“If you have pneumonia, the alveoli (air sacs) in your lungs typically fill with fluid and become inflamed, which can make it difficult to breathe. Left untreated, it can lead to lung abscesses, acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock or even death.”

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

“Symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the condition,” said Dr. Eng. “However, they generally include a cough, flu-like symptoms or fever, and shortness of breath.”

What causes pneumonia?

“Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, which can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi,” explained Dr. Eng. “In fact, there are hundreds of germs that can lead to the condition, from viruses like the flu, rhinovirus and adenovirus to bacteria like streptococcus, pneumococcus and tuberculosis. Exposure to common household molds like aspergillus can also trigger the condition.

“Contrary to popular belief, fluid in the lungs does not cause pneumonia – it’s merely one possible symptom of the condition. However, fluid-filled lungs can also be caused by other conditions, such as heart failure. So if you’re constantly coughing or struggling to breathe, it’s best to speak to your doctor for a proper diagnosis.”

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

A doctor will usually perform a physical exam and a chest X-ray to diagnose pneumonia. But when it comes to the cause of the condition, it can get tricky.

“The big problem with pneumonia is that it can be difficult to identify the specific germ causing it, which can make it harder to treat,” explained Dr. Eng. “Usually, your doctor will conduct a blood test, as well as collect samples of sputum (phlegm) with a throat swab, biopsy or bronchoscopy, but these don’t always flag the cause.

“There are a few reasons for this – firstly, some viruses are incredibly difficult to identify, while others don’t respond to traditional treatments. Secondly, some bacteria grows extremely slow, so it can take several months to pinpoint the cause. Finally, there is a big chance your doctor will prescribe antibiotics straight away (as the majority of pneumonia cases are caused by bacteria), which can affect the results of your blood or sputum test.”

However, regardless of the cause, it’s really important for you to get that initial diagnosis, as Dr. Eng makes clear: “Pneumonia can lead to serious complications, so don’t put off visiting your doctor if you have any cause for concern. You’ll be in the best hands for finding the right treatment.”

How is pneumonia treated?

Your doctor will recommend a course of treatment depending on the severity of your condition, and the suspected cause.

“Usually, this includes antibiotics, antivirals or antifungals, as well as over-the-condition pain, cough or fever medication,” said Dr. Eng. “You’ll only be admitted to hospital if your condition is severe, or if you have an underlying chronic condition. Treatments in hospital may include intravenous antibiotics or respiratory therapy, which deliver specific medications into your bloodstream or lungs.”

Am I at risk of developing pneumonia?

Some people are more at risk of developing pneumonia than others, including the elderly and very young children.

“Pneumonia is also more of a risk in immunocompromised patients, including those with cancer, AIDs, diabetes, transplanted organs and heart diseases,” clarified Dr. Eng.

However, as pneumonia can be caused by myriad bacteria and viruses, it can be very contagious. That’s why it’s important to protect yourself, regardless of age or medical history.

How can I protect myself from pneumonia?

“Most doctors would recommend you go for a pneumonia vaccination every year, especially if you’re over the age of 65 or have a weakened immune system from a condition like cancer, HIV, diabetes or kidney failure,” noted Dr. Eng.

“It’s also worth getting the flu vaccine, as the flu can sometimes lead to pneumonia. These vaccines don’t protect you from every type of pneumonia, but they are generally your best line of defense against the condition. The pneumonia vaccine itself is around 45 percent to 90 percent effective.

“Simply make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your options.”

If you’re already vaccinated, he also shares other simple ways you can protect yourself from developing pneumonia: “Wash your hands regularly, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and maintain a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, regular exercise and no smoking.”

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