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Pneumonia: All you need to know about the ‘single largest infectious cause of death in children and adults worldwide’

In children, pneumonia is caused by a number of infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, said Dr Richard Mario Lurshay, consultant paediatrician, Fortis Hospital, Richmond Road, Bangalore

lungsKnow what happens in pneumonia (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)
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Pneumonia is the single largest infectious cause of death in children and adults worldwide, said Dr Richard Mario Lurshay, consultant paediatrician, Fortis Hospital, Richmond Road, Bangalore. “It causes nearly 22 per cent of all deaths between one and five years of age. The Covid-19 pandemic and climate change have only worsened the pneumonia crisis, and the estimated number of deaths in 2021 is close to a staggering six million,” he added.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a disease that affects the lungs. The lungs have small air sacs called alveoli, which fill with air when you breathe in. When an individual has pneumonia, the alveoli are filled with pus and fluid, which makes breathing painful and limits oxygen intake.

What causes pneumonia?

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In children, pneumonia is caused by a number of infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in children is Streptococcus pneumoniae, followed by Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). The respiratory syncytial virus is the most common viral cause of pneumonia in children.

How is it transmitted?

There are many ways in which pneumonia can spread. When inhaled, the viruses and bacteria that are frequently found in a child’s nose or throat can infect the lungs. Airborne droplets from a cough or sneeze might transmit infectious organisms. Additionally, particularly during and right after childbirth, pneumonia can spread through blood.

Pneumonia can happen right after birth (Representational) (Pixabay)

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

Both bacterial and viral pneumonia manifest with similar symptoms. Pneumonia is diagnosed in children under the age of five who have a cough and/or difficulty breathing, with or without a fever, and either hurried breathing or lower chest wall indrawing, which is when the chest moves in during inhalation (in a healthy person, the chest expands during inhalation). Viral infections are more likely to cause wheezing. Infants that are seriously unwell may not be able to eat or drink, and they may also become unconscious, develop hypothermia, and go into convulsions.

How is pneumonia treated?

“Antibiotics are required to treat bacterial pneumonia. Antivirals can be given if H1N1 infection is suspected. Most pneumonias require oral antibiotics that can be taken at home. Only in severe pneumonia is hospitalisation advised. Severe pneumonia would be considered in children with signs and symptoms such as not being able to drink/feed, having persistent vomiting, having convulsions, cyanosis or being lethargic/unconscious. Other symptoms such as stridor in a calm child and severe malnutrition with signs of pneumonia would require hospitalisation,” Dr Lurshay said.

How can pneumonia be prevented?

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The best defence against pneumonia is immunisation against pneumococcus, measles, and whooping cough (pertussis). “It is said that the deaths of nearly 1.6 million children can be prevented over the next decade by administering the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) alone. Improving children’s natural defences requires adequate nutrition, commencing with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. In addition to being successful in preventing pneumonia, it also aids in shortening a child’s illness if they do contract it,” Dr Lurshay said.

The proportion of kids who have pneumonia is also decreased by addressing environmental issues including indoor air pollution (by offering inexpensive, clean indoor stoves, for instance), and promoting good hygiene in crowded homes.

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First published on: 06-12-2022 at 15:50 IST
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