Pneumonia Can Strike at Any Age
When ESPN reporter Edward Aschoff died last month, many people were shocked. How is it possible, they wondered, for a healthy 34-year-old person to suddenly die from pneumonia? In the wake of Aschoff’s unfortunate death, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach, Florida, want to explain what happened to him and tell you more about this often-deadly disease.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs (alveoli), filling them with fluid or pus. It can occur in one or both (“bilateral”) lungs, or multiple parts of one or both lungs. The latter condition—known as multifocal pneumonia—was behind Aschoff’s death.
Pneumonia may have many triggers, including viruses, bacteria—both of which can be passed to others—and fungi. The most frequent causes include:
- the flu
- streptococcus bacteria (the most common cause)
- mycoplasma bacteria (a cause of “walking pneumonia”—see below)
- ventilator use in a hospital, or simply being hospitalized
Many factors can affect how serious a case of pneumonia becomes in an individual, including the person’s overall health, genetic predisposition, and the type of germ which caused pneumonia.
How common is pneumonia?
Anyone of any age can contract pneumonia, but those most vulnerable include infants under age two and adults over age 65, and those with an underlying health condition, because their immune systems may be too weak or compromised to combat it. Many of the deaths attributed to the flu are caused by pneumonia, a common complication of influenza. The common cold is also a well-known pneumonia trigger.
Pneumonia causes more than a million hospitalizations and more than 50,000 deaths around the world every year. In the United States, the figures are 150,000 hospitalizations and 3,600 deaths.
According to UNICEF, pneumonia kills more children worldwide than any other infectious disease, claiming the lives of over 800,000 children under five every year, or around 2,200 a day. This includes over 153,000 newborns. In the U.S., pneumonia is less often fatal for children, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but is still the most common reason for children to be hospitalized.
Aschoff’s pneumonia began with a virus that lingered for two weeks. Following his death, his fiancé Katy Berteau tweeted the timeline of his illness:
“Edward was admitted to the hospital a week after our first visit to the ER, where he was diagnosed with multifocal pneumonia. After failed antibiotic treatment, with worsening of symptoms, we took him back to the ER and he was immediately admitted,” she wrote.
“After many tests—bone marrow and lung biopsies—treatment was started for a presumed diagnosis of HLH, an unregulated, over-activation of the immune system that causes it to attack itself and other healthy tissues. Within three days of being moved into the ICU, he passed.”
HLH is a rare immune system disease that either was undiagnosed until Aschoff contracted pneumonia, or was caused by pneumonia. Experts suspect the latter was the case, because, in adults, it’s usually triggered by an infection of some type.
Signs of pneumonia
Because the causes and severity of pneumonia vary from person to person, it may be difficult to spot at first.
Some common symptoms include:
- a cough, which may produce phlegm or pus
- chest pain when breathing or coughing
- fever, sweating, shaking, or chills
- shortness of breath
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- confusion or changes in mental awareness in adults 65 and older
- lower-than-normal body temperature in adults 65 and older and people with weakened immune systems
Sometimes there are no symptoms. This condition is known as “walking pneumonia,” because it usually doesn’t require a hospital stay, but may require antibiotic treatment to resolve.
In newborns, symptoms may include vomiting, fever, cough, difficulty breathing or eating, or appearing restless, listless, or tired.
How to avoid catching it
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), the chances of getting pneumonia can be substantially reduced by:
- getting a flu shot every year to prevent seasonal influenza;
- getting a vaccine against pneumococcal pneumonia, the most common form of bacterial pneumonia;
- practicing good hand-washing hygiene;
- following a healthy diet;
- exercising regularly;
- not smoking.
In addition, the ALA says, such practices will help you recover faster if you do become ill.
If you suspect you have pneumonia, contact us as soon as possible, especially if you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent fever of 102 degrees or higher, or a persistent cough. As Aschoff learned too late, the sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the better your chances of survival.