Celebs such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg have recently battled serious cases of the respiratory infection.

By Arielle Tschinkel
October 14, 2019
Getty Images/Fred Paul

With the arrival of cold and flu season, it's time to take extra precautions to stay healthy: washing your hands as often as possible, avoiding people who are visibly sick, and maybe even taking immune-boosting supplements to help ward off germs before they attack. But with celebrities such as Oprah WinfreyWhoopi Goldberg, and Savannah Guthrie revealing in recent months that they've been sidelined by pneumonia, you might be wondering just how at-risk you are for this respiratory infection, especially given that it affects around 900,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Goldberg's experience with the infection, in particular, was very serious. In May, she opened up about her life-threatening case of pneumonia on The View, explaining that it began in November 2018 as a cough, but her symptoms lingered until February, prompting her to go to the emergency room.

Goldberg's primary care doctor, Jorge Rodriguez, M.D. appeared with her on The View, sharing that, at the time Goldberg was ill, her "teeth were chattering," she was "gasping for air," and she had issues walking. (Related: Doctors Are One Step Closer to a Vaccine for Pneumonia and Sinus Infections)

By the time Goldberg was in the hospital, her symptoms included high fever, shortness of breath, an elevated heart rate, and decreased oxygen levels, her pulmonologist, Martin Greenberg, M.D., said on The View. "Taking into account all of the symptoms and signs, she had a 30 percent chance of dying," said Dr. Greenberg. He had to drain fluid from her lungs twice, calling her right lung a "sponge" because it was so congested with fluid that it couldn't fill with air. She was ultimately diagnosed with pneumonia that had triggered a septic shock.

Sepsis is a severe complication of infections like pneumonia that triggers a "chain reaction throughout your body," according to the CDC. If not treated quickly, sepsis can "rapidly" cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death, which is what made Goldberg's case so severe by the time she'd entered the emergency room. (Related: Why Do Some People Die From Pneumonia?)

On a recent episode of The Ellen DeGeneres ShowOprah Winfrey revealed that she, too, battled pneumonia, sharing that after returning from traveling, she thought she had a cold. She was treated with antibiotics for a week, but her symptoms didn't seem to clear up. Then she saw a lung specialist, who diagnosed her with pneumonia and advised that she cancel all her engagements due to the seriousness of her condition. Winfrey implored DeGeneres' audience to get their vaccinations (including a flu shot), because, as she put it, "pneumonia is nothing to play with y'all, it is very serious."

Plus, Today anchor Savannah Guthrie was recently home sick for a week with pneumonia. At the time, she'd called her co-hosts to tell them she was struggling with a cough and fever that she "couldn't break," even with antibiotics. She said she thought it was the flu, adding, "I was shocked that it was pneumonia because I feel like I'm breathing pretty well, like, I'm not wheezing or anything." Her other symptoms included sweating, chills, and body aches, she said during her call to her co-hosts. (Related: Do I Really Have to Get the Flu Shot?)

Given how easy it seems to confuse pneumonia for a bad cold or flu, here's everything you need to know about the respiratory infection.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia refers to serious inflammation of the lungs, specifically the air sacs within the lungs, explains Yeral Patel, M.D., a functional medicine physician practicing in Newport Beach, California. "When the air sacs become inflamed from a virus or bacteria, it can progress into pneumonia, which is when there is fluid or pus in the air sac of one or both lungs caused by a developing infection," says Dr. Patel.

ICYDK, there are a couple of different types of pneumonia, adds Kathleen Dass, M.D., an allergist and immunologist/internist practicing in Oak Park, Michigan. Community-acquired pneumonia is contracted "outside a hospital or health care facility," (which is presumably how Goldberg, Winfrey, and Guthrie came down with their conditions), while nosocomial pneumonia is acquired within a hospital or health care facility. "Pneumonia can also be in both lungs (called double pneumonia) or in one specific lobe of the lungs (called lobar pneumonia)," explains Dr. Dass. (Related: How to Keep the Flu from Turning Into Pneumonia)

What causes pneumonia?

"Pneumonia is contracted through direct person-to-person contact," says Dr. Patel. Much like a cold or flu, one way you can get pneumonia is when mucus or saliva containing a specific infected bacteria—called streptococcus pneumoniae, adds Dr. Dass—becomes airborne by way of coughing, sneezing, contact with a contaminated area, or exposure to an area with many sick people, explains Dr. Patel. FYI: Streptoccocus infections are classified by several different groups, with Group A and Group B being the most common: Group A streptococcus can cause strep throat (as well toxic shock syndrome), while Group B strep can cause pneumonia, meningitis, and certain blood infections, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

But pneumonia can also develop as a result of a respiratory virus or bacterial infection, adds Dr. Dass. This means pneumonia can potentially be caused by the flu, the common cold virus, respiratory syncytial virus (which tends to mimic symptoms of the common cold), and adenovirus (also very similar to the common cold). The top bacterial causes include strep throathaemophilus influenzae (ear infections), chlamydia pneumoniae (which can cause respiratory infections—so, no, it's not the same as chlamydia the STD), and mycoplasma pneumoniae (a common cause of bronchitis/chest colds).

So, a common cold or flu can turn into pneumonia?

The short (and unfortunate) answer is: yes. "A cold and the flu are usually caused by a viral infection," explains Dr. Patel. "Symptoms of cold and flu, such as a runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and cough, are an immune response to the virus invading the body and its attempt to fight it."

If your body can't fight the infection on its own, "the bacteria can further invade the system, causing more severe bacterial infections and high fevers, chills, and worsening bacterial infections such as pneumonia," says Dr. Patel. (Related: Flu Symptoms Everyone Should Be Aware of as Flu Season Approaches)

What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonia, and why is it so serious?

The most common signs and symptoms of pneumonia include a cough (usually with phlegm), fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain when you cough, nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite, explains Dr. Dass. You might also experience profuse sweating and rapid heart rate, adds Dr. Patel. "In more severe cases, patients can become confused and skin can appear bluish or pale due to poor oxygen status," she explains.

Some people simply aren't aware that they're dealing with pneumonia, which is why the infection can become very serious very quickly, says Dr. Dass. "If your symptoms are mild, you may think you have a common cold or flu. With pneumonia, symptoms will last longer than you would typically expect a cold to last. The only way to definitively make the diagnosis is with a chest x-ray," she explains. (Related: What's Causing Your Annoying AF Cough That Won't Go Away?)

Even if your symptoms seem mild, pneumonia is still extremely serious, notes Dr. Patel. "[Pneumonia] requires medical attention," she explains. "Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed, and in severe cases, hospitalization is required. It is very serious, as it impairs oxygenation throughout the body. If left untreated or not treated appropriately, it can lead to worsening systemic infection and possible death."

Pneumonia can be especially serious for young infants and children, people over 65 years old, those with a history of smoking and/or excessive alcohol use, and people whose immune systems are compromised by chronic conditions (such as diabetes), adds Dr. Dass. "Pneumonia is [among] the leading causes of death in children under five worldwide, so any suspicion of pneumonia should be taken very seriously," she says. (Related: Kim Kardashian Shares That 2-Year-Old Son Saint Was Battling Pneumonia)

Is pneumonia contagious?

Since pneumonia is airborneas are the respiratory viruses and bacterial infections that can be the catalyst for the illnessit is indeed highly contagious, cautions Dr. Patel.

"We catch these bacterial or viral infections from the air we breathe through airborne droplets," explains Dr. Dass. "For instance, someone may sneeze or cough near you without covering their nose or mouth. If someone has not washed their hands, you can also be exposed to their germs. Our bodies will normally do their best to fight this, but you can lose the fight even if you are in great health."

How do you treat pneumonia?

The only way to tell the difference between pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses is by getting a chest X-ray, which will show whether fluid and inflammation are present in the lungs, explains Dr. Dass. While the presence of fluid around the lungs—in addition to the above symptoms—likely indicates pneumonia, the fluid can also be a potential sign of heart or liver complications, kidney disease, or it could possibly be a side effect of certain cancers, according to Yale Medicine. "If you [believe you have] pneumonia, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to make the diagnosis and start treatment early," says Dr. Dass.

Both Dr. Dass and Dr. Patel note that treatment depends on the cause and severity of pneumonia. Some people begin to feel better with 10-14 days of antibiotics, while others may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous antibiotics and fluid replacement, explains Dr. Dass. That's why getting to your doctor early is critical: "Most of the time, if caught early, it will mean less downtime, fewer complications, and a better prognosis," explains Dr. Patel. (Related: The No. 1 Thing NOT to Do if You're Sick)

How do you prevent pneumonia?

Getting a flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine can help protect you against the bacteria, says Dr. Dass. "Our bodies can usually clear the virus or bacteria with lots of rest and good nutrition before it turns into pneumonia," she explains. "However, with today's increased stress levels and decreased sleep hours, our immune systems are not in optimal shape. Lack of rest, high stress, poor diet/nutrition, and sedentary lifestyle all help fuel the onset of pneumonia."

Considering pneumonia is "one of the most common and lethal medical conditions doctors see," it's a very important topic to be aware of, adds Dr. Dass. "In the most recent National Health Statistics Report published in 2018, pneumonia accounted for 0.5 percent of all emergency room visits. If you take into account all emergency room visits or office visits where this was the main issue, this accounts for more than 4.5 million people."

Both doctors agree that staying vaccinated and staying vigilant are crucial well beyond cold and flu season. Be sure to visit your doctor as soon as you feel something's not quite right.

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