Have you ever heard the old wives’ tale that going outside with wet hair can give you pneumonia? It’s a myth that many of us have grown up hearing, but is there any truth to it?
Pneumonia is a common illness that targets your lungs. It affects millions of people each year but for many of us, pneumonia remains a mystery. It’s important to distinguish between what we think we know and what science tells us.
Jason McCarl, MD, a pulmonologist with Banner Health, helps separate fact from fiction and debunk 10 common myths about pneumonia so you can stay on top of your respiratory health.
Myth 1: Pneumonia is nothing more than a bad cold.
Fact: Pneumonia is not like your common cold.
“Whereas the common cold is an upper respiratory issue in the sinuses, pneumonia affects the lower airways – namely, the lungs,” Dr. McCarl said.
Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or even fungi that infect the air sacs in your lungs, making it difficult for you to breathe. It can also cause symptoms like fever, cough and chest pain.
While a cold may make you miserable for a few days, with pneumonia it can sometimes take weeks before you feel like yourself again.
Myth 2: Pneumonia is highly contagious.
Fact: Several types of pneumonia exist, but not all forms are contagious.
Pneumonia itself isn’t typically contagious. Whether it spreads depends on the type of germ causing the infection.
“Pneumonia can result from viruses like influenza (flu) and COVID-19 or bacteria like sinus infections. These can spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs or leaves germs behind on surfaces,” Dr. McCarl said.
Other pneumonias like fungal pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia are not contagious. Aspiration pneumonia is caused by inhaling food, liquid, vomit or a physical item into the lungs.
“It’s crucial to take precautions to prevent the spread of underlying infections to reduce the risk of pneumonia,” Dr. McCarl said. This includes washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes and staying away from others who are sick.
Myth 3: Pneumonia only affects older adults.
Fact: Pneumonia can strike anyone.
While it’s true older adults, children under age 5 and people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable, anyone can get pneumonia. Older children, young adults and even athletes can fall victim to this lung infection.
Myth 4: Pneumonia and bronchitis are the same.
Fact: Bronchitis and pneumonia are different illnesses.
Though symptoms of pneumonia and bronchitis overlap – with cough, fever and sometimes difficulty breathing – they are different conditions.
“Bronchitis is the inflammation and infection of the bronchial tubes that bring air to your lungs, while pneumonia affects the air sacs where our lungs take in oxygen,” Dr. McCarl said. “A chest X-ray can typically show the difference between the two illnesses so your provider can treat it appropriately.”
Myth 5: Getting vaccinated causes pneumonia.
Fact: Pneumococcal vaccines do not cause pneumonia.
“Vaccines, such as pneumococcal and flu vaccines, help prevent infection and won’t give you pneumonia, the flu or any other illnesses,” Dr. McCarl said.
The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine doesn’t contain live bacteria. That means they are dead and can’t harm you. As with any vaccine, you may have mild side effects lasting one or two days.
Myth 6: Once you have pneumonia, you’re immune.
Fact: Having pneumonia once doesn’t make you immune to future infections.
Some people are more susceptible to recurrent pneumonia, especially if they have underlying health conditions or weakened immune systems.
Stay up-to-date with your vaccinations and practice good hygiene to reduce your risk.
Myth 7: Pneumonia only happens in winter.
Fact: Pneumonia can happen year-round.
“While it’s true that pneumonia, like the flu and RSV, tend to be more common during the colder months, it can occur at any time of the year,” Dr. McCarl noted.
Pneumonia-causing germs are always around, so take preventative measures to help you stay healthy.
Myth 8: Antibiotics cure all types of pneumonia.
Fact: Treatment depends on the cause and your symptoms.
Antibiotics are effective against bacterial pneumonia but won’t work for viral pneumonia. Your provider will determine the best treatment based on the cause of your pneumonia.
“Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed can lead to antibiotic resistance,” Dr. McCarl said.
If you have viral pneumonia, your provider will likely talk to you about ways to treat your symptoms at home. This may include over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.
For bacterial infections, it’s essential to complete the entire course of your antibiotics and take them as prescribed by your health care provider. For fungal pneumonia, your provider may treat you with antifungal medication to kill or stop the growth of dangerous fungi in your body.
If your symptoms are severe, you may need to be hospitalized.
Myth 9: Pneumonia recovery is quick and easy.
Fact: For some, recovery can take time.
While many people recover from pneumonia with proper treatment, the road to full recovery can be slow. It may take several weeks to regain strength and lung function fully.
Follow your health care provider’s advice and allow yourself the time to heal.
Myth 10: Pneumonia can’t be prevented.
Fact: You can do things to prevent your risk for pneumonia.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of getting pneumonia.
“One of the most effective ways is getting vaccinated,” Dr. McCarl said. “Keeping medical conditions like diabetes, COPD or asthma well-controlled can also reduce your risk.”
Additionally, practice good hygiene, maintain a healthy lifestyle, avoid smoking, get plenty of sleep and stay away from others who are sick.
Pneumonia is a serious respiratory infection that can affect anyone, not just older adults. It’s essential to separate fact from fiction to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Talk to your health care provider or find a Banner Health specialist near you if you have concerns about pneumonia or experience symptoms.