It’s been quite a while since diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis ranked among the biggest killers of the industrialized world. The advent of antibiotics in the mid-twentieth century transformed such conditions from terrifying maladies into far more treatable foes. In fact, antibiotic medications have been so successful that one could be forgiven for viewing lung infections as more a nuisance than threat.
While there is no denying that respiratory infections are eminently more treatable than they were a century ago, these afflictions are not to be taken lightly. In 2006 alone, pneumonia was responsible for the deaths of over 55,000 Americans. When combined with influenza, pneumonia ranked as 2006’s eighth-leading cause of the death. And though medications for respiratory illnesses have become more potent and available over the decades, pneumonia still manages to hospitalize over 400,000 patients per year, with other types of lung infections doubtlessly adding to the total.
Infections of the lungs can be especially threatening to the elderly, and they do not discriminate when picking their targets. In June 2013, a life-threatening lung infection hospitalized former South African president Nelson Mandela (Mandela is currently listed critical condition, and his prognosis has steadily deteriorated in recent weeks). Eight months prior, a stubborn case of bronchitis resulted in the hospitalization of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States.
As troublesome and dangerous as lung infections can be, proper medical care is usually sufficient to remedy the patient’s symptoms. Furthermore, such diseases can be prevented by following some basic guidelines.
Pneumonia – Since we mentioned pneumonia several times in the preceding paragraphs, it makes sense to start our list by talking about this well-known ailment. Medical science has known of pneumonia since the time of the ancient Greeks, and its often-deadly impact on the body earned it a dreadful reputation that persisted into the 20th century. In short, pneumonia occurs when the lungs become inflamed due to the presence of harmful bacteria. The resulting symptoms include coughing, chest pain, fever, shortness of breath and feelings of weakness and fatigue.
The introduction of antibiotics fundamentally changed how the developed world views pneumonia. In 1900, pneumonia was the leading cause of death in the United States; today, most people recover after taking antibiotic medications for a few weeks. When it comes to preventing pneumonia, exercise and sufficient sleep can both bolster the immune system’s defenses. In addition, items like green tea, yogurt, mushrooms and citrus fruits assist your body with fighting off pneumonia. It should be noted that certain types of pneumonia can be largely prevented with a vaccine.
Bronchitis – Bronchitis appears after the bronchi (airway passages that link the nose and lungs) become inflamed, a problem that can be cause by viruses, bacteria and outside pollutants. Once infected, patients usually suffer from a persistent cough, globs of mucus, fever and lack of energy. To add insult to injury, bronchitis usually waits to strike until the patient has just recovered from a cold or flu. Therefore, defending against the flu and colds effectively guards the body against bronchitis.
Your risk of contracting both colds and influenza can be reduced through proper hygiene. Regularly washing your hands, avoiding contact with your face and refraining from sneezing into your hands can all prevent toxins from infecting your body. Performing aerobic exercises and eating foods rich in phytochemicals are also tried-and-true methods for keeping the body healthy (aerobic exercises refer to any activities that increase the body’s need for oxygen; phytochemicals can be found in all sorts of fruits and veggies, including berries, green peppers, tomatoes and carrots).
Surprisingly, the standard treatment protocol for bronchitis doesn’t emphasize medications. Instead, patients are encouraged to get plenty of rest and fluids while inhaling warm air. In most cases, bronchitis vacates the patient on its own accord.
Influenza – Who among us hasn’t gone a few rounds with influenza? And, to go further with the boxing analogy, who hasn’t been thoroughly clobbered by the influenza virus? Not content with clogging your nasal passages and making the back of your throat feel like sand paper, influenza can also lead to the development of pneumonia in the lungs. Influenza’s spread into the lungs is hardly inevitable; consuming plenty of liquids (water, broth and sports drinks are all good bets) not only keeps your body hydrated, but can also block the onset of flu-induced pneumonia. You might also consider avoiding antihistamines, as these medications can cause air passages in the nose, mouth, throat and lungs to become dry and filled with thick secretions.
As with bronchitis, patients with influenza must simply wait until the virus leaves their body. Of course, antibiotics will almost certainly be needed if the patient subsequently contracts pneumonia.