People at risk of influenza are advised to take a flu vaccination Image Credit: iStock

During the last US presidential election, Hillary Clinton famously pulled out of a campaign event due to pneumonia. It came at a time when her Republican opponent, a certain Donald Trump, was repeatedly questioning Clinton’s ability to lead on health grounds. Clinton was caught on camera being helped into a van by secret service agents. The politician, who is now 71, was subsequently prescribed antibiotics and her aides revealed that her persistent allergy-related cough had been diagnosed as mild pneumonia. Clinton may not have won the election but she quickly regained her health and returned to the campaign trail. But what is pneumonia and how serious is it?

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the tissue in one or both of the lungs and it usually caused by a bacterial infection. It causes the tiny air sacs at the end of the breathing tubes in the lungs to fill up with fluid, which can make it harder for the lungs to pass oxygen into the bloodstream.

While the vast majority of people will recover from pneumonia, in severe cases it can take six months or longer to clear. In the elderly or people with serious illnesses, pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death.

“The symptoms of pneumonia include a cough, fever and a shortness of breath,” says Dr Bassam Mahboub, Head of Respiratory Department at Rashid Hospital, DHA. “It is usually preceded by upper respiratory tract infection-like symptoms. Immune-compromised people, those with allergy problems, people who are either very old or very young, smokers and people who suffer from chronic health issues such as diabetes are more likely to have complications from influenza, which leads to pneumonia.”

The symptoms of pneumonia include a cough, fever and a shortness of breath… It is usually preceded by upper respiratory tract infection-like symptoms.

- Dr Bassam Mahboub, Head of Respiratory Department, Rashid Hospital

Other symptoms of pneumonia can include sweating and shivering, a loss of appetite and chest pain. According to the NHS, in the UK pneumonia affects around 8 in 1,000 adults each year and it becomes more widespread in autumn and winter due to the weather.

The weather is one of the key triggers for many respiratory issues and this is also the case here in Dubai. “It is a well-known fact that when weather changes, it predisposes people to getting viral infections,” says Dr Mahboub.

“Viral infections can lead to pneumonia. Weather changes also bring winds and winds carry a lot of microbes that can travel from one place to another.”

Flu vaccine

To lessen your chances of contracting a viral infections, Dr Mahboub recommends regularly washing your hands. He also advises taking a flu vaccination. “One of the most important things is to take the flu vaccination,” he says. “There is another vaccine called the nemovac. The flu vaccine is for viruses but nemovac protects you from bacteria.

“The flu vaccine is meant to prevent serious cases of the influenza virus, which can cause pneumonia. It should be given to everybody but especially young people below the age of four or those who are in day care centres. It should also be given to the elderly and all patients with chronic conditions respiratory diseases, smokers and people who are exposed to infection areas such as teachers or healthcare workers.”

Despite the widespread availability of the flu vaccine, take-up can be stubbornly low. In the UK, where the flu vaccination is offered for free to more than 20 million people, such as pregnant women and people over the age of 65, in December 2017, less than 50 per cent of the people who were eligible for the vaccine had taken their free winter jab.

Here in Dubai, Dr Mahboub is adamant that people should accept the jab, especially if they are at high risk of influenza or pneumonia. “The flu vaccine is safe. It does not prevent the common cold, which is a sore throat and runny nose that lasts between three and five days. But it does prevent — to a great extent — viral influenza, which many people confuse with the simple common cold.”

Treatment

At DHA, doctors follow international guidelines. “There are categories for the severity of pneumonia,” explains Dr Mahboub. “Class 1 is a mild form of pneumonia that you can see from a patient’s X-ray. The patient is otherwise healthy and doesn’t have other complications so we give them antibiotics and send them home. For those where the pneumonia is more complicated, or if they are (for example) above the age of 45 or if they have other diseases, we admit them. If they happen to have low oxygen levels, then we admit the patient to the intensive care unit.”

Unlike Clinton’s episode of pneumonia, most of us are unlikely to find ourselves unwell while running for the US presidency. Nevertheless, by taking sensible precautions, we can significantly reduce our chances of falling victim to weather-related viral infections and pneumonia.