Can you die from pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a common infection that can be contracted by anyone at any stage or age. In most cases, the patient recovers completely. Occasionally, especially in older patients, the condition stays undiagnosed and untreated until it becomes life-threatening. It is one of the leading causes of death in both children and adults and is among the top five causes of death in developed countries. 



Pneumonia is an infection that occurs when the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs get inflamed. This inflammation is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. However, other organisms, such as fungi and parasites, may also cause pneumonia in some patients who have weak immunity. Some types of pneumonia can be contagious. Many viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia are easily transmitted from one person to another, but some types aren’t usually infectious, such as fungal and aspiration pneumonia.

Pneumonia can vary in severity depending on the age and immunity of the individual. The most vulnerable patients are infants, young children, older patients (over the age of 65), and individuals who are immunocompromised (such as patients with AIDS, or those with cancer undergoing chemotherapy). Individuals who smoke are also at risk of being infected with pneumonia. But this does not mean that healthy individuals will not get infected as anyone can be at risk of pneumonia. Early medical treatment can, however, help in curing the infection and preventing possible complications.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

Although this condition may present itself like the common cold or flu, there are some common symptoms that are suggestive of pneumonia:

  • Fever with chills and sweating
  • A feeling of general malaise and fatigue
  • Cough with mucus (green, yellow, or with blood)
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Joint aches
  • Confusion
  • Bluish lips and fingernails

If the symptoms mentioned above are noticed, or the condition starts worsening, your general practitioner may refer you to a lung specialist.

How is pneumonia classified?

This condition can be classified according to the type of pneumonia, how it is acquired, and the degree of severity.

Types of pneumonia:

  • Viral
  • Bacterial
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia (walking pneumonia)
  • Fungal pneumonia

How it is contracted:

  • Community-acquired pneumonia
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia
  • Ventilator-acquired pneumonia

Degree of severity:

  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe
How does pneumonia lead to death?

When an individual gets infected with pneumonia, the alveoli begin to fill with fluid or pus, which may result in fever, chills, and difficulty breathing and ultimately lead to asphyxiation. Without prompt treatment, there is a risk of severe consequences and even death. Pneumonia can also result in a number of complications, such as:

  • ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome): This type of lung injury causes respiratory failure due to the fluid build-up in the lungs.
  • Pleurisy: This condition occurs when the pleura (lining of the lungs) becomes inflamed and causes sharp chest pains.
  • Lung abscess: This lung infection is characterised by a cavity filled with pus; it is usually caused by bacteria in the oral cavity.
  • Respiratory failure: This condition occurs when the respiratory system fails to adequately carry out the gas exchange leading to low oxygen or excess carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • Sepsis: In this condition, the immune system overreacts to an infection and can lead to organ failure and death.
How is pneumonia diagnosed and treated?

Before making a diagnosis, the lung specialist will take a complete medical history and conduct a thorough physical examination. Further testing may also be required for diagnosis. Investigations may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • Sputum culture
  • Pulse oximetry
  • Chest CT scan
  • Pleural fluid culture
  • Bronchoscopy

In some cases, the patients may be treated at home while for severe cases, patients may need to be treated hospitalised. Mild pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics (if the pathogen is bacterial), accompanied by plenty of rest and a high fluid intake. Cough suppressants, pain relievers, and oxygen therapy may be required, especially if the condition is severe. Most cases of viral pneumonia do not require any treatment and may resolve on their own. 

Immunisation can help with the prevention of pneumonia. As the flu is one of the most common causes of pneumonia, a yearly flu vaccine is highly recommended. In addition, a pneumococcal vaccine can protect patients from bacterial pneumonia. It is recommended that infants, those older than 65 years, and those with a weak immune system be vaccinated.

In addition to these vaccinations, there are other ways in which this disease can be prevented:

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Practise good hygiene
  • Stop smoking.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid crowded places
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle that includes adequate rest, exercise, as well as a healthy and balanced diet
  • Keep a distance from those who may be suffering from infectious diseases.
  • Ensure existing chronic conditions are well-controlled, such as asthma, chronic cough, COPD, heart disease, and diabetes.

Getting infected with pneumonia can be serious. It is therefore important that you be aware of your general health and not wait to seek medical help when you feel unwell, especially when you have a respiratory infection.