How to Prevent Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection most commonly caused by bacterial or viral infections and less by fungal infections or aspiration, inhaling a substance into the lungs.

Pneumonia leads to airway inflammation and the alveoli (air sacs) may fill with fluid.

The severity of your symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, underscoring the importance of prevention, early diagnosis, and prompt treatment.

This article will discuss ways to prevent pneumonia so you can avoid this potentially life-threatening condition. 

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Symptoms

Symptoms vary among children, adults, and older adults, but in most cases, you will experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain on deep inspiration
  • Cough (often with phlegm)
  • Night sweats
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Weight loss

Risk Factors

Your age is the biggest risk factor for pneumonia. To be clear, pneumonia can affect anyone at any age, but the two age groups at the highest risk for contracting it and for having more severe cases are children under age 2 and adults older than 65.

But age isn’t the only factor that can increase your risk of pneumonia. A host of lifestyle and health risk factors may also increase your risk, including:

  • Being immunocompromised: Having a weakened immune system, often caused by HIV/AIDS, alcohol abuse, organ transplantation, or long-term cancer or autoimmune treatment (such as chemotherapy or long-term treatment with steroids or other immunosuppressant drugs), can decrease your body’s ability to fight infections, making you more susceptible to pneumonia.
  • Being hospitalized or being on a ventilator: This raises your risk of hospital-acquired bacterial infections and aspiration pneumonia.
  • Having a chronic condition including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, structural lung disease, and heart disease: Damaged lungs are more vulnerable to lung infections. 
  • Smoking: The chemicals in cigarettes compromise the immune system, lowering its ability to defend itself from the organisms that make you sick.

Environmental factors, such as jobs that involve working with toxic substances, indoor air pollution, secondhand smoke, and living in a crowded home, can increase your susceptibility to pneumonia.

Prevention

These tips can help prevent you from getting pneumonia.

Get a Pneumonia Vaccine

Vaccines help prevent pneumonia by boosting your immunity against some of the common bacteria and viruses that cause illness. Taking all of the following vaccines can safeguard you against pneumonia:

Vaccines are incredibly safe and effective, but they can have side effects. Speak to a healthcare provider so you know what to expect with each vaccine.

Of note, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends infants younger than age 2 take four doses of the pneumonia shot at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and then a booster between 12 to 15 months; and that all adults older than 65 be given pneumococcal vaccines.

Exercising Proper Hygiene

One of the best ways to prevent respiratory infections is to practice proper hygiene. Some useful techniques include:

  • Washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are touched a lot (with alcohol based products)
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into your elbow or sleeve
  • Limiting contact with cigarette smoke or quitting smoking
  • Taking good care of medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease

Avoiding Sick Contacts

If possible it’s best to avoid people who are sick. This is even more important for young children and older adults who are at the highest risk of getting sick. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible to keep from getting them sick, especially those in your family or friend circle who are most susceptible to illness.

Don’t Smoke or Abuse Alcohol

As previously mentioned, the chemicals in cigarettes can compromise the immune system, lowering its ability to defend itself from the organisms that make you sick.

Chronic alcohol use increases your risk of hospitalization and damages alveolar macrophages and phagocytic cells that ingest and clear inhaled microbes as the first line of defense in lung cellular immunity.

Chronic alcohol exposure significantly interferes with alveolar macrophage function, making your lungs more vulnerable to infections that they could otherwise defend themselves against.

Maintain Good Overall Health

Having a pre-existing health condition like obesity, diabetes, asthma, COPD, or heart disease greatly increases your risk of pneumonia, hospitalization, and even death.

Preventing these conditions via a combination of vaccination, healthy eating, regular exercise, and routine visits to your healthcare provider are key to preventing pneumonia.

Recovery

There’s no one size fits all recovery from pneumonia. Some people recover in a week, returning to their normal routines, while others take much longer.

If you are diagnosed with pneumonia, follow your healthcare provider's instructions, take antibiotics as prescribed, monitor your symptoms, and allow yourself time to fully recover.

Avoiding situations that may put you into close contact with molds and getting vaccinated are also important steps that you can take to prevent infection.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are having trouble breathing or experiencing a high fever that is not going down with over-the-counter (OTC) medication, seek immediate medical attention.

Remember that infants and small children, older adults over the age of 65, smokers, and people with chronic conditions such as COPD, asthma, and heart disease are at high risk of developing pneumonia and should not wait to see a healthcare provider if they are experiencing pneumonia-like symptoms.

Summary

You can take steps to prevent pneumonia, including avoiding getting sick in the first place by practicing proper hygiene, not smoking, and getting vaccinated.

A Word From Verywell

Pneumonia can be incredibly taxing and some people may take weeks or months to recover.

Following your healthcare provider's recommendations is important to recovery, but preventing pneumonia is the best way to avoid serious medical complications.

The best way to do this is to get vaccinated and avoid crowded spaces where germs are easily spread. While it is not definite that you will develop pneumonia if exposed to the germs that cause it, being aware of your risk factors and safeguarding yourself against infection dramatically lowers your risk. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is pneumonia contagious?

    Pneumonia is most commonly caused by bacteria and viruses, which can be transmitted to others via aerosolized particles that form in the lungs and are transmitted to others through coughing or sneezing.

  • What causes pneumonia?

    Pneumonia is a lung infection most commonly caused by bacteria and viruses. Still, less commonly, it can be caused by fungus and via aspirated substances in the stomach, especially in those who are immunocompromised or hospitalized.

  • How do you get pneumonia?

    Pneumonia is caused by germs that are passed from person to person via direct transmission when a person coughs or sneezes. If you breathe some of these germs directly into your lungs, they may potentially replicate and cause symptoms. Aspiration, or inhaling food, liquids, vomit, or fluids from the mouth into your lungs, called aspiration pneumonia, is also another way you may develop a lung infection.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Pneumonia.

  2. Manabe T, Teramoto S, Tamiya N, Okochi J, Hizawa N. Risk factors for aspiration pneumonia in older adults. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(10):e0140060. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140060

  3. Bello S, Menéndez R, Antoni T, et al. Tobacco smoking increases the risk for death from pneumococcal pneumonia. Chest. 2014;146(4):1029-1037. doi:10.1378/chest.13-2853

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumonia can be prevented—vaccines can help.

  5. Simet SM, Sisson JH. Alcohol's effects on lung health and immunity. Alcohol Res. 2015;37(2):199-208.

By Shamard Charles, MD, MPH
Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.