Many people have saved pneumonia as an old-age disease. The lung tissue of those who were previously completely healthy can also become inflamed. Initially, the symptoms often resemble those of a cold. The consequences are far more serious.

No infectious disease is more fatal in Western Europe than pneumonia. According to the Helmholtz Zentrum München, up to 500,000 people develop it every year in Germany alone . This does not even include patients who become infected with the corresponding germs in the hospital. Doctors estimate that around 35,000 die as a result of the infection. Worldwide there are probably around four million deaths every year, exact figures are not available for many countries. In this country the cases of illness increase especially in autumn and winter.

It mostly affects the elderly, babies, toddlers and people with a weak immune system. Your body can fight pathogens less well, germs have it easier to establish themselves in the organism than in people whose immune defenses are intact. Smokers and asthma patients are also at increased risk of their lungs becoming inflamed.

But pneumonia is by no means an old-age disease or something that only super germs from the clinic can trigger with correspondingly serious previous illnesses. The danger is then much greater, but even healthy people can develop pneumonia – for example if they drag off a cold or are stressed.

The Helmholtz Center names the following possible symptoms:

  • a severe feeling of illness
  • sudden fever
  • chills
  • to cough
  • purulent expectoration
  • in infants and toddlers also poor drinking, paleness and an accelerated pulse

Pain in the lungs, on the other hand, is not a common symptom. Particularly bad: Many associate pneumonia with a high fever and assume that this is what expresses the infection. Fever is not a compelling symptom of a lung infection. Cases without a fever are also known. Especially in older patients, there is often no increased body temperature. Therefore, to rule out pneumonia would be a fallacy – it can be dangerous.

Because if the respiratory tract infection is not treated in time, it can lead to death. Even in Germany, a country with a high medical standard and comprehensive care, every tenth patient treated for pneumonia in hospital dies as a result of the infection.

The triggers are usually pneumococci

In most cases, bacteria, viruses or fungi are to blame. Legionella and chlamydia can also be triggers. Most infections outside of the hospital are responsible for so-called pneumococci ( Streptococcus pneumoniae ).

As with a flu-like infection, the bacteria spread via droplet infection, i.e. through tiny droplets of saliva that pass through the air to others, explains the Helmholz Center – in other words, when speaking, laughing, kissing, sneezing or coughing. Once in the body, the bacteria then settle on the mucous membrane of the nasopharynx and disrupt the gas exchange in the alveoli. The body can no longer channel oxygen into the bloodstream and expel carbon dioxide unhindered.

However, those who become infected with the bacteria do not necessarily get sick, according to the doctors. In fact, many people are carriers of the germ, but remain as healthy as possible because their immune system either kills the pathogen or successfully keeps it in check. Pneumococci were found in the mucous membrane of up to 40 percent of all healthy children.

They usually only cause damage when the body’s immune system is no longer working properly. “Then the pathogen can spread to other organs and cause an infection there.”

Pneumococcal infection is particularly treacherous

Pneumococcal pneumonia is particularly tricky, warns the Helmholtz Center. Because severe symptoms such as acute shortness of breath and lack of oxygen occur particularly often without warning.

If pneumonia is suspected, those affected should therefore not wait days to see the doctor or artificially postpone it. Doctors then usually make the inflamed tissue visible by means of an X-ray image. In the picture it stands out against the healthy tissue.

To contain the inflammation, medical professionals almost always prescribe antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. “Ideally, the infectious agent is known at the beginning of the therapy in order to hit the germ as precisely as possible,” explain the lung specialists at the Helmholtz Center. “Pneumonia, however, is a very serious illness that requires rapid treatment for the patient. In most cases, an antibiotic is selected based on the clinical picture and therapy is started.

What helps the sick lungs

If the pathogen is only identified in the course of treatment, the treatment can also be changed or supplemented if necessary, they add. “The more precisely the pathogen is determined, the more targeted antibiotics can be used and the risk of resistance build-up in the bacteria is minimized.”

In addition to antibiotic therapy, patients should drink enough and take it easy. Medicines that loosen the mucus in the airways also aid healing.

To prevent the lungs from becoming dangerously inflamed, the Standing Vaccination Commission of the Robert Koch Institute (Stiko) recommends that people who are at increased risk of pneumococcal infection get vaccinated by a doctor.

This applies in particular to:

  • Babies from two months of age
  • Older people over 60 years
  • People with chronic heart, circulatory and lung diseases – including asthma and COPD patients
  • People with diabetes in need of treatment or certain neurological diseases
  • People with a weak immune system (immunodeficiency) or triggered by certain drugs (immunosuppressants)
  • People with a cochlear implant or CSF fistula, as these people are also more prone to pneumococcal meningitis (meningitis)

A booster vaccination is not necessary according to current knowledge.

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