The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light all kinds of lung health concerns —and for good reason. The lungs are the first body organ affected by COVID-19, attacking the epithelial cells lining the airways—cells that usually catch and clear things such as pollen and viruses. The novel coronavirus may then flood our airways with debris and fluids which limits their ability to take in oxygen and may lead to further breathing difficulties.

Around 15% of COVID-19 cases are severe, and one serious complication can be pneumonia. Pneumonia causes the lungs' air sacs (alveoli) to become inflamed and fill up with fluid or pus. That can make it harder for oxygen to get into your bloodstream. Last winter, there were over 1.3 million visits to the emergency room because of pneumonia and it caused nearly 50,000 deaths. With the novel coronavirus as a potential contributing factor to pneumonia, this year those numbers could increase substantially.

Types of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, a virus or fungi, though it can be difficult to detect the underlying factor once you are sick.

  • Bacterial pneumonia. The most common type of bacterial pneumonia is called pneumococcal pneumonia. Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae germ that normally lives in the upper respiratory tract. It infects over 900,000 Americans every year. Children under 2, adults over 65, and some individuals with certain medical conditions such as chronic lung disease should get the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine.
  • Viral pneumonia. Viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract may also cause pneumonia—including COVID-19. The influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the novel coronavirus are the most common causes of viral pneumonia in adults.  
  • Fungal pneumonia. Not as common as bacterial or viral pneumonia, fungal pneumonia is most common in people with chronic health problems or weakened immune systems, and in people who are exposed to large doses of certain fungi from contaminated soil or bird droppings.

Protecting Your Lung Health

While there is not a specific treatment for COVID-19 currently available, there are ways you can protect your lung health:

  • Get your flu shot. Influenza is a contributing factor to pneumonia. By getting your flu shot, you can reduce your chances of getting the flu as well as reduce flu symptoms that might lead to pneumonia.
  • Wash your hands. Viruses that can lead to pneumonia are often spread via coughing, sneezing, touching or even breathing. Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, and before eating or preparing foods can reduce the spread of the infection.
  • Follow COVID-19 public health guidance. By protecting yourself from COVID-19, you can protect yourself from complications like pneumonia. Wearing a mask and physically distancing from people outside of your home can help slow the spread of the highly-transmittible lung infection.
  • Know your risk factorsThe people most at risk for pneumonia are infants and young children, adults 65 or older, and people who have other health problems like lung or heart disease, diabetes, etc. By knowing your risk factors, you can make informed decisions on how to protect yourself and your family this winter.

Pneumonia is the single biggest infectious killer of adults and children throughout the world—claiming the lives of 2.5 million, including 672,000 children, in 2019. While pneumonia can be deadly, U.S. healthcare providers are trained and prepared to provide treatment. That being said, for severe cases of pneumonia, healthcare providers, hospital beds and ventilators are part of a necessary treatment plan—all of which may be in short supply while our hospitals deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

This World Pneumonia Day remind your loved ones—especially those at high risk for lung complications—to prioritize their health. Talk to your doctor and get your flu and pneumonia vaccines.

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