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When Does a Cough Become Pneumonia?

October 31, 2016

How do you know if a persistent cough may be turning into something more serious? While instances of flu tend to get more press, pneumonia is actually more common – and more deadly. According to the CDC, about 50,000 people in the United States die of pneumonia each year, versus about 4,000 for influenza.

While most of us will get some sort of seasonal cold this year, the differences between a cough and pneumonia are generally easy to spot. According to Dr. Marcus Romanello, Chief Medical Officer at Fort Hamilton Hospital, the most common cause of a cough is viral bronchitis. This is an irritation caused by a virus of the upper airways and the main trachea and lower bronchia.

“For most people, that irritation results in a cough lasting two or three weeks no matter what you do,” says Dr. Romanello. “A two-to-three-week cough that is otherwise not leaving you with any shortness of breath or fever is probably going to get better on its own and does not require antibiotics. “

However, if a cough not only lingers but begins to worsen and progress, this is a sign of trouble. “It is more likely to be pneumonia,” says Dr. Romanello, “if you are having severe shortness of breath, persistent fever beyond several days, or if you are coughing up significant amounts of mucus.” Seek medical attention if your cough is not improving, is actively getting worse over time, if you experience significant shortness of breath, fever beyond several days, or are unable to eat or drink.

In many cases, those who suffer from pneumonia do not believe their symptoms are serious enough to be pneumonia. This is referred to colloquially as “walking pneumonia.” Symptoms may be so mild that people generally tolerate it without seeking medical help. There are, in fact, over 30 different causes for pneumonia, from bacteria and viruses to fungi, and some result in infections that are more severe than others.  

With so many ways to contract pneumonia, the best way to prevent getting sick is to maintain healthy habits. Wash your hands regularly, follow a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise, and avoid smoking.