What is pneumonia? Is pneumonia contagious? Symptoms, treatment and who's at risk

Most people recover from pneumonia after several weeks, but the infection kills about 50,000 people a year in the U.S.
ESPN college football reporter Edward Aschoff died on Tuesday on his 34th birthday after a brief illness.
ESPN college football reporter Edward Aschoff died on Tuesday on his 34th birthday after a brief illness.Edward Aschoff/Twitter

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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski and Jane Weaver

A phlegmy cough with chest pain when your breathe. Fever and chills. These are the hallmark symptoms of pneumonia — an infection of the lungs.

There's renewed concern about the illness after the death of ESPN college football reporter Edward Aschoff. He passed away on Tuesday, his 34th birthday.

ESPN did not specify how he died, but Aschoff tweeted this month that he was suffering from pneumonia that was affecting his lungs.

His description in the tweet of "multifocal (bilateral) pneumonia" refers to an infection that is affecting multiple parts of both lungs.

His fiancee later clarified in a tweet that the reporter had passed away from HLH, "an unregulated, over-activation of the immune system that causes it to attack itself and other healthy tissues."

Most people recover from pneumonia after several weeks, but the infection kills about 50,000 people a year in the U.S.

Even though the treatment can be fairly straightforward, pneumonia can still pose a serious health threat, said NBC medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar. In certain cases, the infection simply overwhelms a patient's immune system, she noted.

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Who is most at risk for pneumonia?

It can strike anyone, at any age — TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie was sidelined with the illness in September, Whoopi Goldberg revealed in March that she almost died of it and Oprah Winfrey said it forced her to take a rare break from her work.

"Pneumonia is nothing to play with, y'all,'' Winfrey told Ellen DeGeneres in September. "It is very serious."

The elderly, people who smoke or have underlying medical conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable.

Is pneumonia contagious?

Aug. 2, 201600:52

How do you get sick?

Bacteria and viruses are the most common causes of pneumonia. A severe case of influenza can develop into the dangerous lung infection, which may be why it's believed that pneumonia is contagious, too.

The bacteria and viruses that can cause pneumonia are contagious, but pneumonia itself isn't, Azar said.

Viral pneumonia can develop from, and has similar symptoms to, a cold or flu. Viral pneumonia can lead to the more serious bacterial pneumonia, which can cause a fever as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A common cause of bacterial pneumonia is the pneumococcus germ, although doctors aren't always sure where a pneumonia infection comes from, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of bacterial pneumonia, include:

  • fever
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • chills
  • cough, which may produce phlegm
  • chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting or diarrhea

How can you prevent becoming ill?

There are several vaccines that can help prevent pneumonia.

Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand rub also helps prevent pneumonia and other respiratory infections, the CDC says. Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces is also key.

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on the type of pneumonia a patient has. Medicines include antibiotics, antiviral medication and oxygen to increase oxygen in the blood. Rest and proper hydration help the recovery process.

Editor's note 12/26/19: This story has been updated to include a later clarification from Aschoff's fiancee about what caused his death.