FAIRBANKS — Consider the following: From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, 101 of your neighbors, friends or family were admitted to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital with a primary diagnosis of pneumonia. Pneumonia tends to be one of those illnesses that doesn't seem like a big deal.
But let’s fill in the remainder of that statistic. Of those 101 people, seven died. In other words, almost 7 percent of people admitted to FMH with a primary diagnosis of pneumonia died during that period. Across the U.S., rates for in-hospital deaths from pneumonia generally run from 5-12 percent and at times are listed as high as 25 percent.
Clearly, Fairbanks Memorial does an excellent job of focusing on and treating this illness. Yet statistics like these should still give us pause.
Most of us know that pneumonia affects the young and the old more often than others. Yet how many of us have heard of the preventative PPSV or pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine? And do you know that pneumonia almost always, year after year, far outpaces the flu for causing death?
The flip side of that fact is the most common cause of viral pneumonia is the influenza virus. Were you also aware that viral pneumonia is just one of several forms of pneumonia?
Did you know that pneumonia is the leading cause of death worldwide among children younger than 5 years old? Have you heard that tuberculosis, which predisposes a person to pneumonia, has been on the rise in Alaska every year since 2009? Let’s suppose you are a young to middle-aged adult. You run in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter. You’re healthy. In fact you almost never get sick. Would you be surprised if I told you that it’s likely you have the pneumonia bacteria (not virus) living in your throat?
Pneumonia, citing from the American Lung Association, has at least 30 or more causative agents, including tuberculosis, “inhalation of food, liquid, gases or dust” with the most common causes being “bacteria, viruses, mycoplasmas,” fungus and chemicals. Mycoplasmas are disease-causing organisms that are not truly bacteria or viruses. More seriously, they’re unfazed by many common antibiotics.
Despite many causes, prevention of pneumonia can be a relatively simple matter. First, wash your hands. Your mother was right; you should always wash your hands before eating. Further, you should wash after any generally unsanitary activity such as using the bathroom or blowing your nose, or coughing.
Second, get the flu shot. Increased odds of avoiding the flu will decrease your odds of contracting pneumonia. Ask your provider about the PPSV, a vaccine available mostly to older adults that specifically targets prevention of pneumonia.
Third and most important, be proactive with controllable health habits. If you smoke, quit. The implications of hand to mouth/airway transmission and damage to the sensitive tissues of your lungs and body in general are obvious. You also can boost your immunity with exercise, proper sleep and healthy eating habits. Proper sleep means seven to eight hours of sleep per night for most people. And healthy eating, no matter how much you hate to hear it, includes the consumption of vegetables. Again, your mother was right.
Strengthened immunity is your best bet against an unscheduled visit to your local hospital.
The need for and costs of such a visit to your health and bank account far outweigh the costs of prevention. Check out www.consumerhealthratings.com for an idea of what it costs for a typical pneumonia admission.
Finally, pay attention to the air you breathe. Winter in Alaska finds people spending more time indoors. Indoor air, for want of proper ventilation, can often be the poorest air you breathe. Don’t be afraid to crack a window occasionally. It’s cheaper to procure more fuel than languish in the hospital. Use your HRV (heat recovery ventilation) device. Get outside and exercise your lungs.
In summary, it is often said that education is the key to prevention. This sentiment is as pertinent for pneumonia as it is for myriad other health issues. The season for airborne illnesses is well upon us, but you don’t have to passively accept contraction of the flu, TB or pneumonia.
Choose prevention instead.
Donald Lee III is a certified medical-surgical registered nurse and nurse manager at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.