Pneumonia Can Strike Anyone: How to Protect Against It

A common myth about pneumonia is that it’s confined to the sick or elderly. In fact, pneumonia can strike anyone, at any age – though it does pose a more serious threat to infants, young children, the elderly, smokers, and others with weakened immune systems.

Its breadth of potential victims is partly why more than a million Americans go to the hospital each year to treat pneumonia, an infection that inflames the lungs’ air sacs, and can fill them with fluid that makes it hard to breathe. It’s also why pneumonia claims about 50,000 American lives annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk of fatality tends to spike in the winter, when respiratory infections increase.

Vaccinations and antibiotics can help bring down that death rate, said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross. She said there are two broad categories of pneumonia: viral and bacterial. While viral cases sometimes can clear on their own, bacterial pneumonia must be treated with antibiotics.

Dr. Chambers said if you suspect you have pneumonia, see and report your symptoms to your physician, who can target the most effective treatment.

“The appropriate antibiotic will vary, depending on the cause,” she said. “Your doctor will know the best antibiotic for treating your illness.”

Pneumonia’s toll isn’t limited to health. It also can prove taxing for employers. According to a study published by the JAMA Network, annual employer costs for employees who contracted pneumonia were about five times higher than for those who did not.

“Patients with pneumonia present an important financial burden to employers,” the study concluded. “Indirect costs due to disability and absenteeism also contribute to the high cost of pneumonia to an employer.”

Employers can help limit pneumonia’s costs by urging staff to follow vaccine schedules for themselves and their families, and by offering healthcare plans that cover employee vaccinations, as well as necessary antibiotics and potential outpatient or inpatient care to treat the infection.

Capital Blue Cross does it part by covering certain regular pneumococcal vaccinations, as well as a variety of antibiotics.

Aside from shots and antibiotics, Dr. Chambers urges people to take typical virus-prevention measures to help prevent pneumonia.

“Limit your contact with cigarette smoke, and do all you can to manage any chronic conditions,” she said. “And because coughing or sneezing can spread the infection, good hygiene habits such as regular hand-washing and surface-cleaning are also critical.”