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What is bronchopneumonia?

Bronchopneumonia is a type of pneumonia, a condition that causes inflammation of the lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include coughing, breathing difficulties, and fever. Causes include bacterial, viral, or fungal chest infections.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia is responsible for around 51,811 deaths each year in the United States, with the majority of these cases being in adults aged 65 years old or more.

In this article, we look at what bronchopneumonia is, along with its symptoms, causes, and treatment. We also cover prevention.

What is bronchopneumonia?

Diagram of the Larynx Trachea and Bronchi
Bronchopneumonia affects the alveoli and the bronchi.

The bronchi are the large air passages that connect the windpipe to the lungs. These bronchi then split into many tiny air tubes known as bronchioles, which make up the lungs.

At the end of the bronchioles are tiny air sacs called alveoli where the exchange of oxygen from the lungs and carbon dioxide from the bloodstream takes place.

Pneumonia causes an inflammation in the lungs that leads to these alveoli filling with fluid. This fluid impairs normal lung function, producing a range of respiratory problems.

Bronchopneumonia is a form of pneumonia that affects both the alveoli in the lungs and the bronchi.

Symptoms of bronchopneumonia can range from mild to severe. This condition is the most common type of pneumonia in children and the leading cause of death from infection in children aged under 5 years of age.

The symptoms, causes, complications, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of bronchopneumonia are typically the same as that for pneumonia.


Symptoms

The symptoms of bronchopneumonia vary, depending on the severity of the condition. Symptoms are more likely to be severe in people who have weaker immune systems, such as young children, older adults, or people who have certain conditions or are taking specific medications.

Symptoms of bronchopneumonia may include:

  • fever
  • breathing difficulty, such as shortness of breath
  • chest pain that may get worse with coughing or breathing deeply
  • coughing up mucus
  • sweating
  • chills or shivering
  • muscle aches
  • low energy and fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • headaches
  • confusion or disorientation, especially in older adults
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • coughing up blood


Causes and risk factors

Senior with a cough in bed
Anyone over 65 years of age is at risk of developing bronchopneumonia.

The most common cause of bronchopneumonia is a bacterial lung infection, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib). Viral and fungal lung infections can also causes pneumonia.

Harmful germs can enter the bronchi and alveoli and begin to multiply. The body’s immune system produces white blood cells that attack these germs, which causes inflammation. Symptoms often develop from this inflammation.

Risk factors for developing bronchopneumonia include:

  • being under the age of 2 years
  • being over the age of 65 years
  • smoking or excessive alcohol use
  • recent respiratory infections, such as cold and the flu
  • long-term lung diseases, such as COPD, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, and asthma
  • other health conditions, such as diabetes, heart failure, liver disease
  • conditions that weaken the immune systems, such as HIV or certain autoimmune disorders
  • taking drugs to suppress the immune system, such as for chemotherapy, organ transplantation, or long-term steroid use
  • recent surgery or trauma


Complications

Untreated or severe bronchopneumonia can lead to complications, particularly in at-risk people, such as young children, older adults, and those with weakened or suppressed immune systems.

Because it affects a person’s breathing, bronchopneumonia can become very serious and may sometimes cause death.

In 2015, worldwide 920,000 children under the age of 5 years died from pneumonia. This incidence of mortality was predominantly from bronchopneumonia.

Complications of bronchopneumonia can include:

  • Respiratory failure. This happens when the essential exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs begins to fail. People with respiratory failure may need a ventilator or breathing machine to assist with breathing.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is a more severe form of respiratory failure and is life-threatening.
  • Sepsis. Also known as blood poisoning or septicemia, this is when the infection causes an exaggerated immune response that damages the body’s organs and tissues. Sepsis can cause multiple organ failure and is life-threatening.
  • Lung abscesses. These are pus-filled sacs that can form inside the lungs.

Diagnosis

To diagnose bronchopneumonia, a doctor will carry out a physical examination and look at a person’s medical history.

Breathing problems, such as wheezing, are typical indications of bronchopneumonia. But bronchopneumonia can cause similar symptoms to colds or the flu, which can sometimes make diagnosis difficult.

If the doctor suspects bronchopneumonia, they may order one or more of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis or determine the type and severity of the condition:

  • Chest X-ray or CT scan. These imaging tests allow a doctor to see inside the lungs and check for signs of infection.
  • Blood tests. These can help detect signs of infection, such as an abnormal white blood cell count.
  • Bronchoscopy. This involves passing a thin tube with a light and camera through a person’s mouth, down the windpipe, and into the lungs. This procedure allows a doctor to see inside the lungs.
  • Sputum culture. This is a laboratory test that can detect infection from the mucus that a person has coughed up.
  • Pulse oximetry. This is a test used to calculate the amount of oxygen flowing through the bloodstream.
  • Arterial blood gases. Doctors use this test to determine oxygen levels in a person’s blood.


Treatment

woman coughing due to the flu or bronchopneumonia
A person can treat mild bronchopneumonia at home.

Treatment for bronchopneumonia may depend on the type of infection and the severity of the condition. People without other health problems typically recover from bronchopneumonia within 1 to 3 weeks.

It is possible to treat mild forms of bronchopneumonia at home using a combination of rest and medication. But, more severe cases of bronchopneumonia may require hospital treatment.

Doctors treat people whose bronchopneumonia is due to a bacterial infection with antibiotics. These drugs work by killing harmful bacteria in the lungs.

When taking antibiotics, it is essential to carefully follow the doctor’s instructions and complete the full course of medication.

Antibiotics do not work for viral infections. For viral bronchopneumonia, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication for people with the flu, or they may direct therapy at treating symptoms. Bronchopneumonia due to a virus typically clears up in 1 to 3 weeks.

For people with fungal bronchopneumonia, a doctor may prescribe antifungal medication.

When recovering from bronchopneumonia, it is essential for a person to:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids to help thin mucus and reduce discomfort when coughing
  • take all medications, as their doctor directs

Prevention

Vaccination can prevent some forms of bronchopneumonia. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommend that children aged under five years and adults aged over 65 years should see a doctor about getting vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia, which is caused by bacteria.

The ALA also recommend:

  • getting vaccinated against other diseases that can lead to pneumonia, such as the flu, measles, chicken pox, Hib, or pertussis
  • speaking to a doctor about ways of preventing pneumonia and other infections when people have cancer or HIV
  • regularly washing hands to avoid germs
  • not smoking as tobacco damages the lungs’ capacity to fight infections
  • understanding and recognizing symptoms of pneumonia


Takeaway

Bronchopneumonia is a type of pneumonia that affects the bronchi in the lungs. This condition commonly results from a bacterial infection, but viral and fungal infections can also cause it.

Symptoms can vary but often include coughing, difficulty breathing, and fever. If left untreated or in certain people, bronchopneumonia can become serious and sometimes lead to death. This illness is particularly dangerous in young children, older adults, and those with certain other health conditions.

Typically, people who are not compromised by other health problems recover within a few weeks with appropriate treatment. Treatment can be at home or in the hospital, depending on the severity of the infection. Vaccinations can help protect at-risk individuals from bronchopneumonia.

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