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What Is a Lung Infection?

By Jae Jones
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A lung infection is an inflammation in or around the lung tissues that is caused by a virus, fungi, or bacteria. There are a number of things that can trigger this sort of problem, but the four most common tend to be asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The lungs are generally very moist, which makes them an ideal breeding ground for a number of harmful things. Their tissues are also very sensitive and prone to damage from particles that are inhaled or otherwise introduced. Healthy people can normally ward off infections in the lungs and elsewhere as a regular function of the immune response, but problems are much more likely when the lung tissues are already weakened, whether by lifestyle or environmental reasons like smoking or air pollution or by things like disease and respiratory weakness. Most infections are treatable, but success often depends on how quickly the problem is caught and whether it has spread. Simple cases can often be cleared up with a single course of medication, but more advanced infections often require powerful prescription drugs and other sometimes invasive treatments.

Basic Traits

The lungs are one of the core parts of the human respiratory system, which delivers oxygen to the blood and most parts of the body. This system also includes the nasal cavity, the pharynx, and the trachea. Infections that start anywhere in the respiratory tract can quickly spread to the lungs, and vice versa.

There are many different types of infections, each with its own cause and basic characteristics. In most cases, though, they start when some form of irritant causes a weakening of some part of the lung tissue that then makes that tissue more susceptible to bacteria, virus, or infection. People commonly inhale problematic particles, and a number of harmful bacteria do float around even healthy peoples’ bodies from time to time. Infections typically only result if they find a place to stick and start regenerating.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder that obstructs the airway, and is one of the most common causes of lung infections, particularly in children. The condition’s cause is threefold. In most people it is a convergence of bronchial edema, an increase in mucus, and constriction of the bronchi.

Signs and symptoms of asthma include tightness in the chest, wheezing, coughing and dyspnea. Some of the biggest environmental triggers are mold, mildew, seasonal pollen and certain food. Some conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and allergic rhinitis, also contribute to asthma attacks. Infections related to asthma are usually treated with inhaled inflammatory agents such as bronchodilators and glucocorticoids.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is a lung tissue inflammation that is caused by a virus or bacteria, and is another very common source of infection. It is usually brought on by inflammation of the air passages, and the infection occurs when the windpipe and the bronchi in the lungs become swollen, usually as a result of a cold or other viral attack. The incubating period for the infection is typically four days after the triggering illness. Bronchitis is often seen in both adults and children.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an acute inflammation of the lungs, and it is sometimes referred to as an acute respiratory tract infection of the alveoli. This condition is often caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and staphylococci. Pneumonia ranges from mild to severe and can sometimes be life-threatening. It is seen most often in elderly patients and young children, though it can strike anyone. Antibiotics are one of the most common things medical providers use to treat this sort of infections, but there are some pneumonia strains that are resistant to most antibiotics.

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is one of the most serious lung diseases a person can get. It is a serious pulmonary infection that is caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis. The lungs are usually the main organ affected, but the infection can and often does spread. Early stages of the condition don’t usually have any identifiable symptoms, and is usually only detected during a chest X-ray or skin-based tuberculosis test.

Once it sets in, though, it’s usually pretty obvious. Symptoms of progressive tuberculosis include coughing, night sweats, back pain, and weight loss. The condition is highly contagious, and spreads through sputum coughed by infected people. Those who have contracted the illness are often quarantined, and usually must undergo an intensive battery of medications including antibiotics to make the symptoms subside.

Treatment Options and Precautions

Many lung infections are treatable and even curable, but most require prompt medical care. They rarely go away all on their own, in part because of how easy it is for bacteria and viruses to thrive in the moist tissues there but also how quickly problems can spread out of the lungs and into other parts of the body. People who are having trouble breathing or who are having a lot of chest pains are usually advised to get medical help, particularly if they have a history of respiratory infections or have recently suffered a cold or flu.

Infections in the lungs are often very serious, and many are contagious. It is important for people to avoid other individuals who are sick with these types of infections. If it is necessary to be around them, one should take health precautions, such as washing one's hands often and avoiding direct contact with the sick individual. Hand sanitizer should be kept handy for places that do not have easy access for hand washing.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Talentryto — On Feb 14, 2014
This is true, Rundocuri. Many people wait to see a doctor in hopes of getting better. They often also try over the counter medications that do little to help lung infection symptoms.
By Rundocuri — On Feb 13, 2014

Lung infections make you feel miserable, and need to be treated as soon as you get a diagnosis for your symptoms. Waiting it out to see if you get better can result in the infection leading to serious complication.

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