Viral Pneumonia

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Viral pneumonia is not as well known as some other types, such as bacterial. However, it is a very common form of this lung disease that is, unfortunately, responsible for many thousands of fatalities around the world every year. All forms of pneumonia should be taken seriously. Join me as we take a look at some of the specifics of this form of pneumonia and learn a bit about how to best prevent it or manage it if it should occur.

What is Viral Pneumonia?

Viral pneumonia is a common form of pneumonia that is caused by viruses. The technical term for pneumonia is actually pneumonitis, and it is an infection of the lungs. It is a serious illness responsible for the deaths of more than 60,000 people in the United States every year. Pneumonia is caused by a variety of infectious agents such as bacteria, fungi, and others. Viral pneumonia accounts for about half of all cases of pneumonia.

You are most likely to develop pneumonia if you are elderly or if you have a chronic illness or a compromised immune system. However, youngsters can also be struck with pneumonia, and in fact most cases of viral pneumonia are found in children. Around the world, especially in underdeveloped countries, pneumonia remains a leading cause of death for children.

Pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose because it often mimics the symptoms of other respiratory ailments such as influenza or the common cold. In fact, most cases of viral pneumonia start out as a common cold. Viral pneumonia ranges from mild to severe and life threatening. Sometimes it develops rather slowly, but it can also come on very suddenly and intensely.

If you have a weakened immune system you are more likely to develop pneumonia, and you are also more likely to get a serious case of it. Since pneumonia can be so critical, one of the best things you can do is keep your immune system strong and healthy so that your chances of getting pneumonia, viral or other forms, will be minimized. As with all wellness issues, prevention is truly the best medicine.

What Causes Viral Pneumonia?

In order to understand pneumonia, it may be helpful to take a brief look at the respiratory system and how it normally operates. One way to picture your lungs and associated organs is to think of an upside down tree. The trunk of the tree is the trachea or windpipe. This is where inhaled air enters the body. From there it goes into your lungs, two spongy sacs that are surrounded by an organ composed of moist membranes called the pleura. Each of your lungs is subdivided into chambers called lobes. Inside the lobes the air is carried via small passageways called bronchi, and these are further subdivided into tiny airways called bronchioles. At the end of the bronchioles are minute sacs called alveoli. It is here that the critical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide take place. Life-giving oxygen is delivered into the bloodstream, and the waste product carbon dioxide is put back into the lungs to be exhaled out of the body.

The design of the whole respiratory system is quite impressive. The lungs are a moist environment that would be very hospitable to many infectious agents. However, our designer built in measures to keep the germs out. The first line of defense is the nose, where tiny hairs called nasal cilia eliminate many of the larger organisms. Coughing and sneezing also help to clear the respiratory tract of potential antigens. Mucous is also a naturally produced substance that helps to trap foreign matter and keep it out of the lungs. The lungs themselves also have cilia that are constantly beating and pushing particulate matter and infectious invaders back out of the body. This network of protective measures is collectively referred to as the mucocilliary escalator.

The better your mucocilliary escalator is operating, the greater your chances of avoiding pneumonia. However, even the greatest of designs does not catch everything. Researchers are not certain exactly why, but this filtration system does not stop all invaders. If your immune system is healthy, you will not get infected by the trespassers most of the time. But if you are already ill or have a weak immune system, the ones that get through are more likely to result in pneumonia.

Once an infection has taken hold, the immune system responds by sending its agents such as white blood cells to combat the viruses or other contaminants. Unfortunately, the inflammation caused by the immune system response often contributes to the overall problem. The alveoli become filled with fluid, breathing becomes more difficult, and voila! You have a case of pneumonia on your hands.

What Are the Symptoms of Viral Pneumonia?

Many cases of viral pneumonia begin with the common cold. For most people who are otherwise healthy, viral pneumonia is a milder form of pneumonia than other types such as bacterial pneumonia. However, one of the most common complications of viral pneumonia is the development of a simultaneous bacterial pneumonia alongside it.

Common signs of viral pneumonia include the following:

It typically starts out with flu-like symptoms, and is often mistaken for the flu. They include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Dry cough
  • Sweating

As the viral pneumonia progresses, usually after 12-16 hours, additional symptoms may occur.

  • Sore throat
  • More productive cough, usually exhibiting small amounts of clear or white phlegm
  • Shortness of breath

Types of Viral Pneumonia

All forms of pneumonia, including viral, can also be classified by the circumstances surrounding the pneumonia. This is more important than it may seem at first, because all pneumonias are not equal, and it can help to be aware of the type you may have developed. Here are some major classifications:

  • Community-acquired pneumonia: This is the everyday variety that is caught during your normal activities of daily living.
  • Hospital-acquired (nosocomial) pneumonia: Unfortunately, many cases of pneumonia, especially in the elderly, young children, and people with other health challenges, are developed while in the hospital. This type can also produce some of the most severe and life threatening cases as well. Your risk for getting pneumonia in the hospital is increased if you are seriously ill and flat on your back or unconscious, or if you are in intensive care and / or on a respirator, which can often introduce contaminants such as viruses.

What often happens is that severely ill people will experience gastroesophageal reflux, and will then aspire or inhale foreign matter into their lungs, thus spawning pneumonia. This phenomena also sometimes occurs in heavily intoxicated persons. They pass out from drinking too much alcohol or an overdose of drugs, and swallow their own spit up. Sometimes people will suffocate during this process, but more likely they will develop a case of pneumonia.

Certain individuals are at a greater risk for viral pneumonia. Age is definitely a factor. If you are very young or very old, your risk for all kinds of pneumonia is increased. There are several factors that contribute to this. The elderly generally have weaker immune systems and less efficient mucocilliary escalators as well. They are also less active than younger adults, and tend to cough less and less intensely once they do get sick. This is key, as a robust cough is a good thing for pneumonia patients, as it helps to help clear the lungs. Young children are at greater risk because their immune systems are not yet mature, and are less likely to fight off viruses and other invaders effectively.

Smokers are also at increased risk for all types of respiratory conditions, including pneumonias. Tobacco smoke damages the cilia that line the lungs and normally play such a big role at protecting the lungs from infectious agents.

Folks with illnesses that have already taxed their immune systems are also in a higher risk group for pneumonias. These include HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cardio and circulatory conditions, and emphysema, among others. They tend to get pneumonia more often, and more intensive cases of it as well.

What Treatments Are Available for Viral Pneumonia?

Mainstream medical does not have many options to offer when it comes to viral pneumonia or viral infections of any kind, for that matter. It is usually recommended that viral pneumonia be treated similar to the flu: lots of rest and plenty of fluids.

However, preventing viral and other types of pneumonia is more hopeful. Of course, it depends on what one means by preventing. Allopathic medicine pushes “preventative” vaccines on the public, trying to persuade them based on fear and misinformation. Influenza vaccines and pneumonia vaccines are routinely recommended for all children under two and for anyone who is elderly or has a compromised immune system. I would stay away from these vaccines. They are toxic to the body, and have been linked to autism and other illnesses. You are much better off taking good care of yourself, eating a wholesome diet, exercising, and getting ample sleep in order to boost your immune system. With a strong immune system you will probably not get viral pneumonia, and if you do you will be able to effectively fight it off.

Some additional tips to dealing with viral pneumonia include:

  • Drink lots of water. This will help your body heal itself by loosening up the congestion in your lungs.
  • Take several deep breaths, and cough as fervently as you can. Repeat this often throughout the day. It helps to clear the airways and will help you heal faster.
  • Wash your hands often, especially during cold and flu season. The most likely way you will introduce viruses and other germs into your respiratory tract is by touching your face.
  • Use of a humidifier is also beneficial by loosening up the phlegm. It can be especially effective in your sleeping area.
  • Do yourself and others a favor if you are sick: stay home. You need the rest, and others don’t need to be exposed to your germs.

Most cases of viral pneumonia in generally healthy people are not a serious medical condition. The best way to deal with viral pneumonia in most cases is to let it run its course, just the way you would a flu. Our bodies have a wonderful way of healing themselves if we just let them do what they are designed to do. Even better, take care of yourself the way you are supposed to and you will probably never have to deal with illnesses such as viral pneumonia in the first place.

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