Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a form of acute respiratory infection that is most commonly caused by viruses or bacteria. It can cause mild to life-threatening illness in people of all ages, however, it is the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide.

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Pneumonia killed more than 808 000 children under the age of 5 in 2017, accounting for 15% of all deaths of children under 5 years.  People at-risk for pneumonia also include adults over the age of 65 and people with preexisting health problems.

The lungs are made up of small sacs called alveoli, which fill with air when a healthy person breathes. When an individual has pneumonia, the alveoli are filled with pus and fluid, which makes breathing painful and limits oxygen intake. These infections are generally spread by direct contact with infected people.

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Vaccines can help prevent pneumonia.

Key facts

  • Pneumonia accounts for 14% of all deaths of children under 5 years old, killing 740 180 children in 2019
  • Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.
  • Pneumonia is preventable by immunization, adequate nutrition, and by addressing environmental factors.
  • Pneumonia is caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, but only one third of children with pneumonia receive the antibiotics they need.

Causes

Pneumonia is caused by a number of infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria and fungi. The most common are:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae – the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in children;
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) – the second most common cause of bacterial pneumonia;
  • respiratory syncytial virus is the most common viral cause of pneumonia;
  • in infants infected with HIV, Pneumocystis jiroveci is one of the most common causes of pneumonia, responsible for at least one quarter of all pneumonia deaths in HIV-infected infants.

Transmission

Pneumonia can be spread in a number of ways. The viruses and bacteria that are commonly found in a child’s nose or throat, can infect the lungs if they are inhaled. They may also spread via air-borne droplets from a cough or sneeze. In addition, pneumonia may spread through blood, especially during and shortly after birth. More research needs to be done on the different pathogens causing pneumonia and the ways they are transmitted, as this is of critical importance for treatment and prevention.

Presenting features

The presenting features of viral and bacterial pneumonia are similar. However, the symptoms of viral pneumonia may be more numerous than the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia. In children under 5 years of age, who have cough and/or difficult breathing, with or without fever, pneumonia is diagnosed by the presence of either fast breathing or lower chest wall indrawing where their chest moves in or retracts during inhalation (in a healthy person, the chest expands during inhalation). Wheezing is more common in viral infections.

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Very severely ill infants may be unable to feed or drink and may also experience unconsciousness, hypothermia and convulsions.

Risk factors

While most healthy children can fight the infection with their natural defences, children whose immune systems are compromised are at higher risk of developing pneumonia. A child’s immune system may be weakened by malnutrition or undernourishment, especially in infants who are not exclusively breastfed.

Pre-existing illnesses, such as symptomatic HIV infections and measles, also increase a child’s risk of contracting pneumonia.

The following environmental factors also increase a child’s susceptibility to pneumonia:

  • indoor air pollution caused by cooking and heating with biomass fuels (such as wood or dung)
  • living in crowded homes
  • parental smoking.

Treatment

Pneumonia is/should be treated with antibiotics. The antibiotic of choice for first line treatment is amoxicillin dispersible tablets. Most cases of pneumonia require oral antibiotics, which are often prescribed at a health centre. These cases can also be diagnosed and treated with inexpensive oral antibiotics at the community level by trained community health workers. Hospitalization is recommended only for severe cases of pneumonia.

Prevention

Preventing pneumonia in children is an essential component of a strategy to reduce child mortality. Immunization against Hib, pneumococcus, measles and whooping cough (pertussis) is the most effective way to prevent pneumonia.

Adequate nutrition is key to improving children’s natural defences, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. In addition to being effective in preventing pneumonia, it also helps to reduce the length of the illness if a child does become ill.

Addressing environmental factors such as indoor air pollution (by providing affordable clean indoor stoves, for example) and encouraging good hygiene in crowded homes also reduces the number of children who fall ill with pneumonia.

In children infected with HIV, the antibiotic cotrimoxazole is given daily to decrease the risk of contracting pneumonia.

Content Credit: World Health Organization

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