Pneumonia: Signs, Symptoms and Risk Factors

Why is Pneumonia More Common After Surgery?

Recovering After Surgery
Avoid Pneumonia During Your Recovery.

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection that occurs in the lungs.  It can be in one lung or both, and can range from mild to life-threatening.   Pneumonia is often caused by bacteria, but can also be caused by a virus or even fungus in rare cases.  

Pneumonia causes sputum, a fluid that may look like pus during a bout of pneumonia,  to collect in the lungs.  This leads to a severe cough in many cases, as a cough is the body’s way of trying to eject this fluid from the lungs.

  This fluid collection makes the body work much harder to get enough oxygen for normal daily activities.

Who Is at Risk For Pneumonia?

The patients at greatest risk for pneumonia are the very young and the older population.    While people of any age can get pneumonia, most cases are in children and people who are over 65.  Individuals with chronic health problems, such as diabetes, are at higher risk than the average person, as are people with chronic respiratory problems.  

Individuals who have weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer or HIV, and those taking medications that suppress the immune system are also at increased risk of developing pneumonia.

Individuals who aspirate, meaning their food or saliva accidentally goes into the airway instead of the esophagus, are at high risk for pneumonia. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Pneumonia?

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary from person to person.

 One person may be short of breath while another may experience only a severe cough.  Here are the most common signs and symptoms of pneumonia:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Productive cough, often severe and may be green in color
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain when coughing or breathing deeply
  • Feeling weak 
  • Feeling tired
  • Changes in mental status
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting

Why Is Pneumonia Common After Surgery?

Pneumonia is more likely in people who have chronic illnesses, and surgery is often the result of chronic illness.  Preexisting conditions mean many patients are at risk for pneumonia before they even have surgery.  Once in surgery, the patient may be “asleep” for several hours, and even longer while in recovery in the days following surgery.  Being in bed instead of being up and moving can contribute to the development of pneumonia.  

Pain often prevents surgery patients from breathing as deeply as they normally would, and it also makes people avoid coughing.  Shallow breathing and not coughing when appropriate also increases the risk of pneumonia.  Having chest surgery, in particular, increases the risk of pneumonia.

It is also important to know that hospital-acquired pneumonia, that is pneumonia that an individual contracts in the hospital, is known to be more severe than pneumonia that one 

What Can Be Done to Prevent Pneumonia After Surgery?

For some patients, the pneumonia vaccine may be appropriate. In addition, walking as early as possible after surgery is a great way to stay healthy and recover quickly.  In addition, coughing when the urge strikes is important.  Bracing with a pillow can help minimize pain when doing so.

How is Pneumonia Treated?

The most common treatment for pneumonia is antibiotic medications, but that approach only works for bacterial pneumonia. Treatment for pneumonia varies widely based on the cause of the infection and the severity of symptoms.  In cases where the patient is having trouble getting enough oxygen, a hospital stay is typically required and supplemental oxygen may be provided.  Severe cases may require ICU level care. 


NIH. Who Is At Risk For Pneumonia.  Accessed December 2014.

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