Thursday | November 23, 2017
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The Dr. is In

Updated: 
November 6, 2017 - 12:45am

Very early last Thursday morning I received a call from an unfamiliar number, but the area code was from where my parents live, so I picked up. The social worker on the other end of the line said my stepdad was in the ICU, needing lifesaving measures and my mother was missing. Having been made power of attorney if they were to become incapacitated, I approved dad to be put on a ventilator and contacted the sheriff to check on my mom at home, where they found her semi-conscious, and transported her to the hospital. They both had double pneumonia after a bout with the flu. Their oxygen levels were so low they were unable to realize how sick they were until it was dire.

Even with flu and pneumonia vaccines, you can still be susceptible. Those who are at high risk for pneumonia include people who have lung issues such as COPD or asthma, heart disease, neurological issues that may diminish cough or swallow reflex, cancer, chronic or severe medical conditions, weakened immune system from cancer treatment, recent illness of flu, cold, measles or chicken pox, HIV, alcohol or drug (prescription or recreational) use or abuse, tobacco, surgery, diabetes, or take medication for acid reflux. Very young children or seniors over 65 are particularly at risk.

In the United States about a million people are hospitalized, and 50,000 people die from pneumonia each year.

What can you do?

If you smoke, quit. It takes 7-10 years for the lungs to completely recover from a lifetime of smoking, but every day you do not smoke is a day closer to stronger, healthier lungs.

Protect yourself from colds and flus by avoiding obviously ill people. Colds, flu, chickenpox and measles can all be precursors to pneumonia.

Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. If you are particularly run down or under a great deal of stress, take care of yourself before going places where you may be exposed to illness.

Protect those around you. If you are feeling run down, on the verge of being sick or actually ill, stay home and take care of yourself. People are most contagious two or three days before symptoms occur and can last one to two weeks after. Get enough sleep, eat well and manage stress.

If you take drugs, get help to quit. Taking proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) for acid reflux can decrease stomach acid that kills germs. Take the minimum dose of PPIs allowable to treat your condition appropriately. Know that even if you get your influenza and pneumococcal (pneumonia) immunizations, you may not be fully protected. Continue good preventative practices.

Know the signs:

• Dry or unproductive cough usually within weeks after an upper respiratory infection,

• Chest pain

• Difficulty breathing or “air hunger”

• Fever or chills, sweaty or clammy skin

• Muscle aches, joint pain

• Purple hue to skin due to low oxygen levels

For the elderly, pneumonia can present with few symptoms other than sudden confusion, which may be mistaken for dementia.

As a footnote, I encourage all my adult patients, no matter the age, to have a will stating their wishes for whom they want to make decisions on their behalf should they not be able to. My stepdad named my mother (who was also incapacitated at the same time) and then me as his backup health care power of attorney only last month. Had this not been in place, his wishes would not have been carried out for his treatment and subsequent rehabilitation from this illness. Luckily, both mom and stepdad are on the road to healing.

A little preparation went a long way.

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