Pneumonia is a common lung infection. The cause can be bacteria, a virus, or a fungus. Pneumonia can be mild and only require a few weeks of treatment before you can resume normal activities. It can also be more severe and require several weeks of treatment and a stay in the hospital. Pneumonia can also be life-threatening and even fatal in some cases.
If you have lung cancer, you have an increased risk of developing pneumonia. Read on to learn more about symptoms of pneumonia in people with lung cancer, treatment options, and what you can do to prevent It.
Symptoms of lung cancer and pneumonia
Symptoms and causes of pneumonia are the same regardless of whether you have lung cancer. Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can all cause pneumonia.
It may be more difficult to identify pneumonia if you have lung cancer. Many of the symptoms of pneumonia can seem like the symptoms or complications of lung cancer.
Causes of pneumonia
Pneumonia has three main causes:
A virus causes one-third of the cases of pneumonia in the United States. Some viruses that can cause pneumonia include:
- herpes simplex
- respiratory syncytial virus
Additionally, mycoplasmas, or Mycoplasma pneumoniae, can cause pneumonia. Mycoplasma is a type of bacterium that frequently causes respiratory infections. This type of pneumonia is sometimes called “atypical” or “walking” pneumonia.
Chemicals may also cause pneumonia. Certain gases, chemicals, or excessive dust can irritate your nose and airways, and increase your chances of developing pneumonia.
Having one type of pneumonia doesn’t prevent you from having a second type. People who develop viral pneumonia have a higher risk of getting a bacterial infection.
Anyone can get pneumonia, but certain risk factors increase your chance. One of those factors is lung cancer. People with lung cancer frequently develop pneumonia.
These additional risk factors increase your risk of getting pneumonia:
- a chronic lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis
- cigarette smoking
- a recent respiratory infection, including pneumonia, a chest cold, influenza, or laryngitis
- complicating illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney disease
- a recent surgery or hospital stay
If you have lung cancer and begin developing new or worsening symptoms or respiratory symptoms, your doctor may immediately suspect pneumonia. Delays in diagnosis and treatment can be life-threatening, so early diagnosis is extremely important.
Your doctor may:
- perform a physical exam
- use a stethoscope to listen to your chest while you breathe
- order a chest X-ray
- order blood tests
If you have lung cancer, it may be more difficult for your doctor to diagnose pneumonia. Your exam and imaging findings will already be abnormal in you have lung cancer. In both cases, you may have wheezing or rales on your lung exam and your chest X-ray may show opacities or hazy areas.
Your doctor may need to request additional tests to confirm the diagnosis. These tests will also help your doctor determine the severity of your infection and help narrow your treatment options.
These additional tests include:
- a test for arterial blood gases to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood
- a pulse oximetry test to measure how much oxygen is moving from your lungs into your bloodstream
- a CT scan to see abnormalities more clearly
- a sputum culture, which involves analyzing mucus or phlegm you cough up to help your doctor identify the cause of your infection
- blood cultures to make sure that no dangerous infectious organisms have traveled to your bloodstream
How is pneumonia treated?
If you have lung cancer and develop pneumonia, your treatment will be the same as a person with pneumonia who doesn’t have lung cancer. The most important thing is to treat the cause of pneumonia.
You may need to stay in the hospital for intravenous (IV) antibiotics, or you may be able to treat your pneumonia at home with oral antibiotics. In most cases of viral pneumonia, treatment will focus on supportive care, like supplemental oxygen, IV fluids, and rest.
Your doctor will consider other factors to determine whether or not you need to stay in the hospital for treatment, including:
- your age
- your overall health and other medical problems
- the severity of your symptoms
- your vital signs, including temperature, respiratory rate, blood pressure and pulse
If you can be safely get treatment for pneumonia at home, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics you can take at home include:
The following are important for successful home treatment:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- following your doctor’s instructions, including taking all of your antibiotics even after you start to feel better
If you end up in the hospital, in addition to giving you medications to treat your infection and its symptoms, your doctor will likely give you supplemental fluids to help keep your body hydrated.
In many cases, they’ll provide an antibiotic that can treat many types of bacterial infections. This is also known as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. You’ll take this until the sputum culture results can confirm the exact organism causing your pneumonia. If test results show a virus is causing your pneumonia, antibiotics will not treat your infection. An antiviral medication might help.
If you show signs of low blood oxygen levels, your doctor may prescribe oxygen to increase the oxygen in your blood.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat symptoms like chest pain or cough. Your doctor may ask a respiratory therapist to work with you to help clear secretions and open your airways. This can help improve your breathing.
What is the outlook?
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States. More than 158,000 people will die from lung cancer each year. Infections, including pneumonia, are the second most common cause of death in people with lung cancer.
Pneumonia is a serious lung infection. If you don’t get a diagnosis and proper treatment, it can lead to serious complications and possibly even death. This type of infection is especially concerning for people with lung cancer because their lung function is already compromised.
Here are five things you can do to help prevent pneumonia:
Get a flu vaccine
The flu is a common cause of pneumonia. Getting a vaccine helps you prevent both the flu and a possible pneumonia infection.
Smoking is the top risk factor for lung cancer in the United States. If you have lung cancer, your doctor has likely talked with you about not smoking. If you haven’t considered it yet, now is the time. Tobacco severely damages your lungs and lowers your body’s ability to heal and fight the infection.
Wash your hands
Use the same precautions you do when trying to avoid the flu to avoid pneumonia. This includes washing your hands, sneezing or coughing into the bend of your arm, and avoiding people who are sick. Because your immune system is already weak due to cancer, it’s especially important that you try to protect against germs.
Take care of your health
A cancer diagnosis requires you to pay attention to your health in ways you may not have before. Get regular rest, eat a healthy diet, and exercise as your body allows. An overall healthy approach to life can help your body in multiple ways, especially when you have cancer.
Ask your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine, especially if you’re over age 65.