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Lung Infections Overview: Causes, Common Infections, Symptoms & Outcome

Lung Infections Overview: Causes, Common Infections, Symptoms & OutcomeLung infections affect millions of people in the U.S. alone and a lot more on a global scale. Combined, all types of lung diseases make the number three killer in the United States. Through the breathing process, lungs take out oxygen from the air and deliver it to the bloodstream. The cells in one’s body need oxygen to work and grow, and a person breathes roughly 25,000 times in a normal day. People suffering from lung infections have difficulty breathing, and this affects their whole organism.

Breathing is a complex process and if injury, disease or other factors affect any part of this process one may experience trouble breathing. The fine hairs called cilia that line the upper airways, for instance, may not manage to trap all the germs one breathes in. Those germs can cause an infection in the bronchial tubes (bronchitis) or deep in the lungs (pneumonia or other lung infections). Such infections cause mucus or fluid to build up and narrow the airways, thus limiting airflow in and out of the lungs.

Lung infections cover disorders that affect the lungs, the organs that allow people to breathe. Examples of lung diseases include asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema; lung infections such as influenza and pneumonia; lung cancer; sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis.

Common Lung Infections

Lung infections affect the lower respiratory tract, which is why they are also called lower respiratory tract infections or diseases. The structure of the lung includes the bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli. Lung infections can affect any or all of these structures, as well as the supporting tissues surrounding them.

•    Lung Infections and Inflammation

Inflammation appears as a reaction by the immune system as it tries to repair an area of the body that has become threatened. When an organism foreign to the body manages to bypass the protective physical and chemical barriers, the immune system takes a stance and attacks the intruder. Inflammation, in turn, has four effects: redness, heat, swelling and pain. Inflammation of the lung tissue causes symptoms such as difficulty breathing, cough and congestion.

•    Pneumonia

Pneumonia is the most common of all lung infections. According to the Mayo Clinic Online Library, pneumonia is an inflammation of the lung, typically caused by an infection. As the condition progresses, it can develop from pathogenic to viral, bacterial or fungal organisms. There are three different types of pneumonia: bronchopneumonia, lobar pneumonia and interstitial pneumonia (also referred to as “walking pneumonia”). Signs and symptoms of pneumonia include shortness of breath, fever, chest pain and a mucus-expelling cough. Pneumonia can be very damaging and if left untreated or if not managed properly it can cause severe medical complications and even death.

•    Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis is one of the most common lung infections worldwide and a leading cause of death in many regions. It is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis and it spreads via respiratory droplets emitted by coughing. If not properly managed, tuberculosis can turn into a systemic disease. As bacteria invade the respiratory system, the immune system will trigger an inflammation response that will trap and ward off the infection from the surrounding tissue. The affected lung tissue dies and leaves a calcified area which shows up as a hardened structure on an X-ray. Screening tests are very effective in detecting and diagnosing tuberculosis, and proper antibiotics can successfully clear the infection.

•    Bronchitis

Another condition very common among lung infections is bronchitis, an inflammation of the large and small bronchi leading to increased mucus production and airway obstruction. There are two types of bronchitis: chronic and acute, with the latter type often brought on by infection. The most common cause of acute bronchitis is viral infections. Chronic bronchitis, meanwhile, generally consists of roughly three episodes of acute bronchitis that last at least three months each and occur within two consecutive years. Acute bronchitis that turns into chronic bronchitis is usually attributed to chemicals, allergens and/or cigarette smoke. Such irritants make the airways more reactive, as well as more prone to inflammation and mucus production.

•    Influenza (Flu)

The flu affects everyone at least once in a lifetime. It’s caused by a virus and is typically associated with many upper respiratory tract symptoms and systemic indicators, including body aches and fatigue. Flu, however, can also cause coughing, which suggests some lower respiratory issues. Quite frequently, an improperly managed flu can lead to pneumonia. According to researchers, flu-induced pneumonia was responsible for most deaths among the estimated 20 million people who died in the 1918-1919 flu epidemic.

Bacterial Lung Infections

As previously mentioned, lung infections occur when a pathologic bacteria invades the lungs. In serious cases, the bacteria can multiply and spread to other parts of the body. This bacterial replication causes an inflammation of the alveoli in the lungs, where the oxygen exchange occurs. In some cases, a lung infection can clear on its own, but more serious cases require proper treatment.

A common misconception is that going out into the cold alone is enough to cause a lung infection such as a flu or bacterial infection. In fact, infections spread by contact with previously infected individuals, often through coughing or coming into contact with sputum from the lungs (using the same cup, silverware, kissing etc.) The bacteria stick to cells in the respiratory tract and lungs, where they multiply. The newly-infected person then coughs out cells, infecting more people and completing the cycle of infection.

People suffering from bacterial pneumonia often experience extremely high temperatures, rapid breathing, chills, drowsiness, cough with sputum, chest pain, and other such symptoms. In extreme cases, patients may display a blue tint on the lips or fingernails, but these cases are quite rare. Bacterial bronchitis symptoms, meanwhile, include a high fever, cough with sputum, fatigue, shortness of breath and slight chills.

Treating bacterial lung infections varies depending on the diagnostic. The most common course of treatment for bronchitis caused by bacteria consists of antibiotics. The Mayo Clinic further recommends that patients get plenty of rest, aspirin and fluids. Antibiotics are also used in the treatment of bacterial pneumonia, but they may vary depending on several physiological factors. In terms of cough suppressants, doctors usually recommend against it because ea productive cough can actually help improve lung function by clearing the infection.

People with a weaker immune system from chronic conditions, the elderly and newborns are the most vulnerable to lung infections. Prevention can often be as simple as avoiding contact with infected individuals and living in a clean environment, but this may not always stop an infection. The important thing is to pay attention to symptoms and seek medical help if the infection is serious and persistent.

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