According to the center for disease control(CDC) ‘Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages’.
Pneumonia is the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide. Pneumonia killed 920 136 children under the age of 5 in 2015, accounting for 16% of all deaths of children under five years old.
Pneumonia can be spread in a number of ways.
The viruses and bacteria that are commonly found in a child’s nose or throat, can infect the lungs if they are inhaled.
They may also spread via air-borne droplets from a cough or sneeze. In addition,
pneumonia may spread through blood, especially during and shortly after birth.
- The presenting features of viral and bacterial pneumonia are similar. However, the symptoms of viral pneumonia may be more numerous than the symptoms of bacterial pneumonia. In children under 5 years of age, who have cough and/or difficult breathing, with or without fever, pneumonia is diagnosed by the presence of either fast breathing or lower chest wall indrawing where their chest moves in or retracts during inhalation (in a healthy person, the chest expands during inhalation). Wheezing is more common in viral infections.
- Very severely ill infants may be unable to feed or drink and may also experience unconsciousness, hypothermia and convulsions.
While most healthy children can fight the infection with their natural defences, children whose immune systems are compromised are at higher risk of developing pneumonia. A child’s immune system may be weakened by malnutrition or undernourishment, especially in infants who are not exclusively breastfed.
Pre-existing illnesses, such as symptomatic HIV infections and measles, also increase a child’s risk of contracting pneumonia.
The following environmental factors also increase a child’s susceptibility to pneumonia:
- indoor air pollution caused by cooking and heating with biomass fuels (such as wood or dung)
- living in crowded homes
- parental smoking.
Pneumonia should be treated with antibiotics. Most cases of pneumonia require oral antibiotics. These cases can also be diagnosed and treated with inexpensive oral antibiotics at the community level by trained community health workers. Hospitalization is recommended only for severe cases of pneumonia.
- Immunization against Hib, pneumococcus, measles and whooping cough (pertussis) is the most effective way to prevent pneumonia.
- Adequate nutrition is key to improving children’s natural defences, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. In addition to being effective in preventing pneumonia, it also helps to reduce the length of the illness if a child does become ill.
- Addressing environmental factors such as indoor air pollution (by providing affordable clean indoor stoves, for example) and encouraging good hygiene in crowded homes also reduces the number of children who fall ill with pneumonia.
- In children infected with HIV, the antibiotic cotrimoxazole is given daily to decrease the risk of contracting pneumonia.
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