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Sea Sick: Pneumonia is not contagious, but its sources are

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Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

We have all heard of pneumonia, but how many people really know what pneumonia is? Is it contagious? How can we treat it? Can it be fatal?

The American Lung Association defines pneumonia as “a common lung infection caused by bacteria, a virus or fungi.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, pneumonia kills approximately one million children younger than 5 each year worldwide. In the U.S., pneumonia kills about 50,000 people and sends about one million to the hospital every year.

The symptoms of pneumonia may appear mild or extreme, and anyone can get it. Pneumonia is commonly a complication of a respiratory infection such as the flu, however, there are more than 30 different causes of the illness.

The most common symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Cough (some pneumonias may result in coughing up mucus)
  • Fever, which may be mild or high
  • Shaking, chills
  • Shortness of breath, which may only occur when you climb stairs
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
  • Headache
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Excessive sweating and clammy skin
  • Loss of appetite, low energy and fatigue
  • Confusion, especially in older people

Who is at risk? Those considered at high risk for catching and battling pneumonia are older adults, children and people with chronic disease, including COPD and asthma.

When conducting CPR AED First Aid classes on boats, I am often asked if pneumonia is infectious or contagious. Pneumonia is not contagious, however the germs that cause pneumonia often are. Germs and viruses that cause the flu, common cold, or bacterial infections are contagious and can lead to pneumonia.
It is often possible to prevent pneumonia and the spread of other contagious infections by avoiding contact with people who have a cold or flu. On land, this is easy, but in tight quarters, such as on a boat, it may be more challenging. When avoiding “sick people” is not an option, frequent hand washing is the next best thing. Clean all door knobs, railings and other surfaces that people touch. It is important to stop smoking because smoking weakens your lungs, making you more susceptible to infection. The final suggestion is to strengthen your immune system through diet, exercise and proper sleep.

There are many treatments available for pneumonia, according to the American Lung Association. Treatment depends on the cause of the  pneumonia, how severe the symptoms are, and the age and overall health of the patient.

Pneumonia is typically diagnosed by a doctor using a stethoscope to listen to the patient’s lungs. When people have pneumonia, their lungs may make crackling, bubbling and rumbling sounds, or they may wheeze when inhaling. A chest X-ray, blood work, CT (or CAT) scan, sputum test, and pleural fluid culture may also be required.
While X-rays and CT Scans are not possible on board, most good first-aid kits have a pulse oximeter, or “pulse ox.” These easy-to-use, inexpensive tools can help diagnose many problems, including pneumonia. The pulse ox gently clips onto the patient’s finger. Then a laser light shines through the nail bed to estimate how much oxygen is in the bloodstream. A low oxygen level indicates a possible problem with the lungs, and the patient may have pneumonia.

  • Most people can be treated at home or while at sea by following these steps:
  • Drink plenty of water to help loosen secretions and bring up phlegm.
  • Get lots of sleep, and avoid long or difficult work days.
  • Control fever with aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen), or acetaminophen. But NEVER give aspirin to children.
  •  Never administer or take any medicines without first talking to a doctor.
  • Make sure antibiotics are taken exactly as prescribed.

As with all medical emergencies, it is always best to seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Most medical problems are easy to treat in the early stages, versus waiting until the condition worsens.

Trained as an emergency medical technician, Keith Murray now owns The CPR School, which provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service (www.TheCPRSchool.com). Comments are welcome below.

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