Lung Foundation Australia says there are many common myths about pneumonia.
One of the most common is that pneumonia is a severe cold or flu but this isn’t the case.
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs caused by bacteria, inflammation or fungi, and is more likely to occur after a cold or flu.
Heather Allan, from Lung Foundation Australia, says older Australians are particularly at risk.
“Pneumonia generally is a serious problem in Australia. And we know that as people get older particularly the age-group of 65 plus, the incidence of pneumonia increases significantly,” she said.
“There’s a particular strain of pneumonia, and that’s called pneumococcal pneumonia that’s common but potentially life threatening. And it’s this bacterial pneumonia that we are really encouraging those 65 years of age and older to speak to their doctors about the best way to protect themselves from.”
“Indigenous people will contract pneumococcal pneumonia at a rate of 20 times higher than the rest of the population.”
A recent survey of 65 to 74 year-olds conducted by Lung Foundation revealed most did not differentiate between flu and pneumonia.
Less than 40 per cent of those surveyed had been vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia.
Heather Allan says Indigenous Australians remain especially vulnerable to contracting the more severe strains of the illness.
She says this is because Indigenous Australians have higher rates of other chronic health conditions which may also impair immunity.
“The government data shows that for pneumonia generally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations will have much higher rates of hospitalisation for pneumonia than men and women across all the ages.”
“In fact, for pneumococcal pneumonia, we see across all the populations that Indigenous people will contract pneumococcal pneumonia at a rate of 20 times higher than the rest of the population.”
“When we get to the higher age groups 65 plus, the Aboriginal populations get pneumococcal pneumonia at rates four times higher than the general population”.
Lucy Morgan is a professor of Respiratory Medicine with Concord Hospital in Sydney.
She says people don’t realise that pneumonia is still a leading cause of death in Australia.
“The way that pneumonia presents in pretty similar whatever your age. It can come on very quickly,” she said.
“It’s all illness characterised by high fever, cough and breathlessness, and there may be dirty horrible sputum that you throw up, and you may be feeling quite queasy like you want to vomit.”
“The big think is older Australian, when they get pneumonia, are much much sicker and they will spend up to twice as long in hospital if they need to be in hospital.”
“The death rate is still significant. It’s actually one of the commonest causes of death. It’s one of the top 10 causes of death for all Australians.”
Angela, now in her mid 60s, contracted double pneumonia in her mid 50s which was treated by antibiotics.
But since developing pneumonia, Angela now lives with permanent lung damage known as bronchiectasis, a condition involving damage to the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs.
This means pneumonia has injured the walls of her airways, stopping them from clearing mucus. As a result, Angela dreads getting anything more than a sniffle.
“So long as I don’t get any bout of respiratory illness I can manage. But I am a very active person. Even these days I walk between 5 and 10 kilometres a day and I’m fine,” she said.
“(But) I have a terrible fear of not being able to breathe, of being helpless. I’d like to urge anyone who has any fears about their lungs, who can’t afford to get ill to take advantage. The pneumococcal vaccine is available free from the government, because they know what damage pneumonia can do, especially to older people.”
While experts say vaccination is the best way of avoiding pneumococcal pneumonia, there are other strategies people can use to prevent illness.
Lung Foundation Australia says older Australians should talk to their doctor about how best to protect against pneumococcal pneumonia, including through the government-subsidised vaccination program.
Professor Lucy Morgan agrees.
“There are various ways you can hope to reduce your risk of getting pneumonia. Really simple things like hand hygiene, washing your hands frequently is a good way or protecting yourself.,” she said.
“Actually avoiding contact with sick kids, particularly if you have chronic health conditions yourself. Then there is the issue of vaccination. It doesn’t reduce your chances of catching infection, but it certainly reduces your chance of catching infection.”
“People who may have had their spleen removed, people with certain types of cancer. They definitely need to talk to their doctors about vaccinations.”