Pneumonia onslaught: Chest specialist's frontline battle

Changing weather patterns create an environment conducive to the spread of respiratory pathogens. [iStockphoto]

As the rainy season sets in across Kenya, ushering in cooler temperatures and damp conditions, the risk of respiratory illnesses like pneumonia increases.

Dr Joseph Aluoch, a renowned chest specialist, finds himself at the forefront of this battle, frequently encountering patients suffering from pneumonia, a potentially serious lung infection.

With years of experience under his belt, Dr Aluoch understands the grave nature of pneumonia and the urgency required to address severe cases.

“During this time of year, we see a surge in pneumonia cases,” he explains,

According to the doctor, the changing weather patterns create an environment conducive to the spread of respiratory pathogens, leaving individuals, especially those with compromised immune systems, vulnerable.

“While many cases are mild and can be treated on an outpatient basis, severe pneumonia requires prompt medical attention and can be life-threatening if left unchecked,” Dr Aluoch explains.

According to Dr Aluoch, pneumonia simply means inflammation of the lung.

“Inflammation can be divided into two types, infective and non-infective,” he says

Dr Aluoch explains that severe pneumonia can arise from various infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. However, he says that certain factors increase the risk of developing a more severe form of the illness.

“Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those living with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or chronic lung diseases like COPD or asthma, are more susceptible to severe pneumonia,” he says.

Adding that age also plays a role, with infants under one year old and adults over 65 at higher risk.

Other predisposing factors the specialist adds, include recent viral infections like the flu, which can pave the way for secondary bacterial pneumonia and exposure to environmental pollutants or toxic fumes.

“Alcoholism and smoking further compromise the lungs’ defences, making individuals more vulnerable to severe respiratory infections,” the chest specialist explains.

The signs and symptoms of severe pneumonia can vary but typically include a high fever over 102°F (39°C), Severe cough producing thick, discoloured mucus or even bloody sputum, Rapid breathing and shortness of breath, Sharp chest pain that worsens with coughing or deep breathing, Fatigue and muscle aches, Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea 

“In severe cases, patients may experience confusion, rapid heart rate, and low blood pressure, indicating the infection has progressed to a life-threatening stage,” says Dr Aluoch.

According to Dr Aluoch, Prompt treatment is crucial for severe pneumonia.

“Hospitalization is often required, and in severe cases, admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) may be necessary,” he says.

Treatment typically involves:

Broad-spectrum antibiotics - administered intravenously to combat bacterial pneumonia. “The specific antibiotic regimen is tailored based on the type of bacteria and the patient’s medical history,” the specialist explains.

Oxygen therapy - Supplemental oxygen is provided to patients with low blood oxygen levels to improve breathing and prevent organ damage.

Respiratory support - In severe cases, patients may require mechanical ventilation (breathing machine) to support their respiratory function.

Fluid replacement - Intravenous fluids are given to patients to maintain proper hydration levels and electrolyte balance.

Adjunctive therapies - Depending on the underlying cause, additional treatments such as antiviral or antifungal medications may be prescribed.

While pneumonia cannot always be avoided, Dr Aluoch explains that certain measures can help reduce the risk of severe illness. These include: Getting vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia, especially for high-risk groups.

Practising good hygiene, such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes. Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke and other lung irritants. Promptly treating underlying medical conditions that weaken the immune system.

While precise statistics are difficult to obtain, as many cases go unrecorded, Dr. Aluoch affirms that respiratory infections are among the most common reasons Kenyans seek medical care and receive antibiotic prescriptions.

As the rainy season progresses, Dr Aluoch’s advice is clear:

“Stay warm, get vaccinated if you’re in a high-risk group, and seek prompt medical attention if you suspect pneumonia. Prevention and early treatment can save lives.” 

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