At the first sign of symptoms, the flu and pneumonia can seem very similar, and with flu season just around the corner, it’s important to be able to tell the two apart. While the flu is only caused by a virus, pneumonia can be viral, bacterial, or even fungal.
Understanding which illness you have is key to properly treating it, as well as avoiding getting sick in the future.
What Is the Flu?
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus. The flu virus can affect the nose, throat, and lungs. Flu symptoms are more intense than those of the common cold, and often include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- A cough or itchy throat
- A sore throat
- Muscle and body aches
- A headache
- Occasional nausea
There are three types of influenza virus: type A, B, and C. The type A virus is the one that humans are most commonly exposed to and is often the cause of seasonal outbreaks. The type A virus can also infect animals and birds are common carriers.
Type B is the second most common, and can also cause seasonal outbreaks; however, it can only be transmitted by humans. Type C is the least common, and there is currently no vaccine to protect against it.
All three types of the flu virus are constantly mutating, which is why individuals can be reinfected with the virus year after year. The virus enters the body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, and mouth, and is commonly contracted by coming into contact with an infected person.
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It can also be contracted by touching something a sick person has recently come in contact with, such as a door handle that was sneezed on. The flu virus can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours, so it’s important to practice proper hygiene to avoid getting ill.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs and can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. In adults, bacterial pneumonia is the most common form. Pneumonia inflames the air sacs in the lungs, which can then fill with fluid or pus and make breathing difficult. The most common symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Chest pain when breathing or coughing
- A phlegmy cough
- High fever, often over 101°F
- Chills and sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath 1
The most common cause of pneumonia in the United States is Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacteria. Fungal pneumonia is the most common in individuals with weak immune systems or chronic health problems, while viral pneumonia is most common in children under five.
Viral pneumonia often causes flu-like symptoms, with a high fever peaking after 12–35 hours. On the other hand, bacterial pneumonia can cause a fever of up to 105°F, confusion, sweating, and bluish lips and nails.
Both bacterial and viral pneumonia are contagious and can spread from person-to-person much like the flu does. Fungal pneumonia doesn’t spread between people, but it can be contracted from the environment.
Can the Flu Cause Pneumonia?
Pneumonia, either bacterial or viral, is a common complication of having the flu. Those who are at the highest risk of contracting pneumonia from the flu are adults over the age of 65, children under four, individuals living in nursing homes, people with heart or lung disease, individuals with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women. 2
Approximately one-third of all cases of pneumonia in the United States are caused by respiratory viruses, most commonly the flu virus.3 Pneumonia can be caused by a flu virus entering the lungs or the contraction of a bacterial infection while sick with the flu. If you are suffering from the flu and experience any of these symptoms, you should consult your doctor immediately:
- Chest pains
- A cough with bloody mucus
- Abnormally fast pulse
- Shortness of breath
When you contract a bacterial infection while sick with the flu, your symptoms may initially seem to improve. The symptoms then get worse, resulting in a high fever, phlegmy cough and a greenish tinge to your mucus.
In fact, researchers at the University of Michigan found that having the flu can raise your risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia 100-fold.
Pneumonia causes more deaths globally than any other infectious disease, which is why it is so important to understand the difference between flu and pneumonia.4 Knowing which illness you have can help you get the treatment you need to recover.
Pneumonia often lasts for approximately two weeks, although can last longer in children, elderly adults, and people with weakened immune systems. Most cases of pneumonia are generally mild and not life-threatening, although they should not be ignored.
Doctors can most often diagnose pneumonia by listening to the lungs or looking at a chest x-ray. A blood test can help determine what type of organism is causing the illness.
How Is Pneumonia Treated?
There are two types of vaccines for pneumonia: one for adults and one for children. The adult vaccine protects against 23 different types of bacteria that can cause pneumonia.
While the flu virus is constantly mutating, making it necessary to get a new flu vaccine every year, pneumonia vaccines are only necessary once. Since contracting the flu can place you at risk for also coming down with pneumonia, it is recommended to get both the flu and the pneumonia vaccine.
Antibiotics can treat pneumonia that is caused by bacterial infections, while antiviral drugs and antifungal medications are used to treat illnesses caused by viruses and fungi, respectively. If you have a mild case of pneumonia, you can often recover at home by getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids.
However, bacterial pneumonia is often more serious than viral pneumonia and can lead to a blood infection or even respiratory failure. Because of this, if you’re experiencing symptoms of pneumonia, it’s important to have a doctor determine what type it is.
Maintaining Your Health
While there is no surefire way to avoid getting ill, you can reduce your chances by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, reducing stress levels, and getting the proper amount of sleep can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
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