You're out in the rain, jumping around in puddles, and somebody yells, "Get inside before you catch pneumonia!" But what is pneumonia? And can you really catch it from playing in the rain?
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia (say: new-moan-ya) is an infection of one or both lungs. To know what that means, you have to know something about lungs and what they do. When you breathe in, you pull oxygen into your lungs. That oxygen travels through breathing tubes and eventually gets into your blood through the alveoli (say: al-vee-oh-lie).
Alveoli are tiny air sacs covered in tiny blood vessels called capillaries. How can something so small get oxygen into your blood? You have about 600 million of them! When oxygen-rich air reaches the alveoli, it can be absorbed into the blood. Then your red blood cells can carry oxygen all over your body. The body needs oxygen to keep working properly and to stay alive.
But if a person has pneumonia, his or her lungs can't do their job as well as they usually do. Why? Because this kind of infection creates fluid that blocks the alveoli. This makes it hard for oxygen to get deep into the lungs, where it can be passed through to the blood. The person can still breathe, but it might be harder to breathe, especially if the pneumonia affects both lungs.
Pneumonia can happen to people at any age, from tiny babies to really old people. Getting wet doesn't cause pneumonia — an infection from bacteria or a virus does. A cold or flu that gets worse can turn into pneumonia. That's because the cold or flu will irritate the lungs, creating an environment where it's easier for pneumonia germs to move in and start an infection.
How Does It Feel?
Most kids with pneumonia will feel sick. The symptoms can vary depending on a kid's overall health and whether it's caused by a virus or bacteria. With bacterial pneumonia, a kid might feel sick suddenly and have a high fever with chills. The viral kind of pneumonia might happen more slowly and take longer to go away.
Either way, a kid might feel like he or she has the flu with a cough, fever, headache, and sometimes belly pain. Pneumonia often causes chest discomfort, too — and a feeling like you can't quite catch your breath. The kid might be breathing faster than usual and may cough up gloppy mucus. Pneumonia can even make a kid feel sick to his or her stomach and not want to eat at all. It's not much fun, but with the right treatment, most kids with pneumonia recover completely.
What Do Doctors Do?
To diagnose pneumonia, a doctor will first ask you questions about how you are feeling — including how well you're breathing — and examine you. The doctor will listen to your chest with a stethoscope (say: steth-eh-skope). We usually think about stethoscopes listening for heartbeats, but they help doctors hear what's going on in your lungs, too.
Your lungs don't beat, but the doctor can hear the sounds they're making. If there's fluid in there — a sign of pneumonia — he or she might be able to hear bubbling or crackling sounds called rales (say: rowls).
If your doctor thinks you could have pneumonia, he or she may order a chest X-ray or begin treatment right away. On an X-ray, the doctor can often see signs of the pneumonia infection. Any buildup of fluid or infection often shows up as a cloudy, patchy white area in the usual see-through spaces of the lungs. In some cases, the X-ray can help a the doctor tell if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.
No More Pneumonia
If the pneumonia is caused by bacteria, antibiotic medicine will be given. If the doctor thinks you won't be able to keep the medicine down, or if you are having trouble breathing, the treatment might be given in the hospital through an IV.
Antibiotics won't work on viruses, so if that's the cause of the pneumonia, only fever reducers and sometimes cough medicine will be suggested. No matter which germ caused the pneumonia, getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids is always recommended.
There are several ways to keep from getting pneumonia. One is to get all your shots because one of them can help to prevent a type of pneumonia called pneumococcal (say: new-mo-cock-al) pneumonia. Getting a flu shot can also help guard against getting pneumonia, particularly in kids who have asthma or certain other lung conditions. Getting enough rest is also very important because lack of sleep may make it harder for your immune system to fight infections.
What else? Wash your hands, of course. Regularly washing your hands with soap and water can keep you from getting colds, the flu, and picking up other nasty germs that can cause pneumonia. So wash those germs down the drain!
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: March 2008