Two in three cases of pneumonia are being missed by GPs, new research suggests.
The study, led by the National Institute for Health Research, also found some doctors are mistaking symptoms of more common viral infections for pneumonia, prescribing unnecessary antibiotics and potentially contributing to antibiotic resistance.
Considering this, the researchers suggested GPs should complete four measures in order to better detect pneumonia and avoid over-prescribing medication: testing for fever, high pulse rate, crackly breath sounds and low oxygen levels.
In light of the research, Dr Clare Morrison, GP for online doctor service MedExpress, says the public shouldn’t panic.
“I think it’s important to remember that GPs are human beings and it can be tough to always get it right. This is why, in my experience, they tend to go the extra mile and offer antibiotics - this has been criticised - but it is because they are concerned about missing something important,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“However, this new study looks like it could assist doctors in identifying pneumonia and I welcome these findings. Any extra insight is always useful.
“Just be vigilant about your own health and if in doubt, always take the safe option,” she says.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about pneumonia.
What is pneumonia?
Dr Nitin Shori, medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, says pneumonia is “the medical name given to an inflammation of the soft tissue in the lungs”.
“Infection with the streptococcus pneumonia bacteria is the most common cause of ‘community-acquired’ pneumonia [pneumonia that begins outside of hospital],” he tells HuffPost UK.
“But it can also be caused by a virus or even exposure to certain types of fungi.”
The illness can affect people of any age but can be more serious for vulnerable patients, including young children, the elderly, and people with serious pre-existing medical conditions.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
According to the NHS, pneumonia symptoms can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours, or they may come on more slowly over several days.
Common symptoms include: a cough (which can lead to the production of thick, coloured phlegm), difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, fever, generally feeling unwell, sweating and shivering, loss of appetite or chest pain.
Less common symptoms include: coughing up blood, headaches, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, wheezing, joint and muscle pain, and confusion.
“Anyone who believes they might have pneumonia should see a GP,” Dr Shori says.
“It’s important for anyone with breathing difficulties to seek urgent medical attention.”
How is pneumonia treated and diagnosed?
According to Dr Shori, a doctor will normally diagnose pneumonia using the symptoms outlined by a patient and through a chest examination.
“Further tests are sometimes required as pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose because it shares many characteristics with less serious conditions, including coughs and colds,” he says.
“A chest X-ray and blood tests can be useful in establishing the diagnosis.”
Patients with pneumonia are usually given antibiotics and advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
“People at high risk of pneumonia can be often offered vaccination against the pneumococcal virus,” Dr Shori adds.
What is the prognosis for pneumonia?
Pneumonia affects around 8 in 1,000 adults each year and the majority of cases can be treated successfully at home if doctors only suspect mild pneumonia.
“Pneumonia can linger for quite a long time and getting back up to full energy can take a few months,” Dr Morrison says.
“The key thing is to get the fluid off the lungs and you will be required to go back to have follow up appointments to check oxygen levels and temperature.”
However, if left untreated, pneumonia can be life-threatening.
Dr Morrison says double pneumonia - where both lungs are impacted - can be particularly problematic and may need to be monitored in hospital.
“The more segments of your lungs that are infected, the more severe the disease,” she explains.
If you’re at all concerned about symptoms of pneumonia, visit your GP.