How to Regain Strength After Pneumonia: Nutrition for Weakness and Fatigue
Pneumonia is a common illness, affecting hundreds of millions of people each year. We know a great deal about it, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it. Still, even with that knowledge, one fact remains inescapable: pneumonia can simply wear you down and wipe you out.
Even cases that are caught and treated quickly can be difficult to recover from as pneumonia packs a powerful punch when it comes to fatigue. Pneumonia can make the strong feel weak and the normally energetic feel utterly exhausted.
According to the American Lung Association, most people will continue to feel tired for around a month after pneumonia. This can be extremely unsettling to busy working parents who are juggling the demands of a household and a job, or a child who does not understand why he cannot run as fast as he once did at soccer practice, or a senior citizen who may feel her fatigue is leaving her isolated from family and friends.
Regaining strength after pneumonia is possible with a commitment to proper nutrition, physical activity, and rest. We will explore some of the things you can do to feel better as you recover after we first take a look at how and why pneumonia occurs and how it is treated.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection that develops in the lungs after we are exposed to a trigger, which can be in one of three categories: bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The first two are much more common, and fungal pneumonia is rare.
Bacterial pneumonia often occurs after the flu or other viruses, with a germ known as streptococcus pneumoniae as a common culprit. Usually, bacterial pneumonia will affect only one part of the lung, and those with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to it.
Viral pneumonia is caused by a virus (most often influenza) and in children. It is often linked to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). People with existing pulmonary or coronary conditions are at especially high risk for viral pneumonia, as are pregnant women. Usually, viral pneumonia is less severe than bacterial pneumonia and patients recover sooner; however, it should still be taken seriously and treated quickly as complications can develop.
The rarest type of pneumonia is fungal pneumonia, which can occur after exposure to contaminated soil or even bird droppings. Those with weakened immune systems are susceptible as well as people treated with some long-term medications for conditions such as HIV, cancer, or transplant recovery.
How is Pneumonia Diagnosed and Treated?
The type of treatment prescribed by your physician will be dependent upon the type of pneumonia you have.
If your doctor suspects you may have pneumonia, you may need to have a chest x-ray, a blood test, or a sputum test (which involves testing fluid you have coughed up) to be diagnosed. Additionally, a pulse oximetry test may be ordered to check the oxygen level in your blood.
If your pneumonia is bacterial, it will be treated with antibiotics. If it is viral, you will not benefit from an antibiotic; instead, your physician may prescribe an antiviral medication.
In all cases of pneumonia, your doctor will likely suggest you get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and use over-the-counter pain relievers or fever reducers as needed. Additionally, anyone suffering from pneumonia should stop smoking (immediately!) to aid their recovery.
In some cases, pneumonia can become so serious that a patient requires hospitalization and a ventilator. It is important to follow your doctor’s specific instructions regarding medication and rest to avoid serious complications, and you should also contact your physician right away if your symptoms become severe and unmanageable.
While pneumonia is not as contagious as influenza, you can still pass it along to others, so take great care to stay home and avoid infecting others at work and school. Once you have taken antibiotics for a few days, you should no longer be contagious with bacterial pneumonia.
On the topic of those antibiotics: be sure you finish your entire prescription. Many patients start to feel better and think they no longer need an antibiotic. Stopping a prescription early only increases the chance that the infection will return.
Recovering from Pneumonia and Regaining Strength
Recovering from pneumonia will not be an overnight process. While some patients may start to feel better within a week, for others it could take a month or more. The key to recovery is the need for continued rest: those who overexert themselves may end up feeling even worse.
This recovery process is about incremental improvements, feeling just a little bit stronger each day. One of the challenges with pneumonia is the way that symptoms, such as a cough or extreme fatigue, will linger. A patient’s recovery time will also be affected by their age, their general health, and the type of pneumonia. Older adults with heart disease, for example, will likely feel lousy much longer than otherwise healthy teenagers who develops pneumonia.
After fighting pneumonia, the body is working to rid itself of what we might consider the collateral damage – fluid and debris left in your lungs. It will take time for the lungs to heal from all of the inflammation, and a patient may also continually need to expel mucus, which can be incredibly unpleasant.
Rest and Exercise
The balance between rest and exercise can be tricky for people recovering from pneumonia, but your physician will advise that you need a healthy dose of both. Pneumonia recovery may find a regular six-hours-a-night sleeper needing ten or more hours instead. Pneumonia recovery may mean that the 25 miles you run each week get cut in half temporarily.
It is crucial to listen to signals from your body when recovering from pneumonia. Perhaps you are not the type of person who would ever nap at 3 pm, but in the case of pneumonia recovery, you may need that hour-long rest.
You should only exercise in small increments at first, perhaps starting with a short walk down the street or 10 minutes of stretching. Over time you will be able to build back up to your regular fitness routine, but overexertion could prolong your illness.
While recovering from pneumonia you may need to lean on family, friends, and neighbors for help. Recognizing that you may need more rest than usual, do not hesitate to ask for help when it comes to errands, chores, and other activities. You may have to refrain from some of your normal social activity as well, to allow your body plenty of time to rest and heal.
For those struggling to recover from pneumonia, pulmonary rehabilitation may be another possibility to explore with your physician.
Pneumonia Recovery and Nutrition: You Are What You Eat
A healthy and well-balanced diet is critical to overall health, and it certainly comes into play as our bodies heal from infections and viruses. What you put into your body has a direct impact on your recovery from pneumonia, which is why patients are advised to stop smoking (immediately!) and also limit alcohol consumption if they have or are recovering from pneumonia.
Nutrient-rich foods are known to help our bodies and fight illnesses as well as heal from them, so focusing on a healthy diet will likely shorten your recovery time, too. When it comes to addressing the weakness and fatigue associated with pneumonia, experts point to:
- plenty of fluids to stay hydrated
- foods containing vitamin D
- foods containing iron
A Vitamin D-rich Diet
Vitamin D has been shown to strengthen our immune systems, making it a great tool in terms of fighting many illnesses, including pneumonia, and recovering from them.
While many of us get a daily dose of Vitamin D out in the fresh air, when we are exposed to sunshine, if we are in bed recovering from pneumonia our time in the sun is limited or nonexistent. We can instead look for foods to boost Vitamin D levels, including:
- fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- fortified breakfast cereals
In some foods (such as the fish named above) Vitamin D occurs naturally. Others are “fortified” with Vitamin D (meaning it has been added), such as breakfast cereals.
In addition to helping us recover from illness and regaining energy and strength, Vitamin D reduces inflammation and promotes strong bones, making it an important part of a healthy diet year-round.
An Iron-rich Diet
Iron deficiencies can lead to fatigue in otherwise healthy people, so those with pneumonia need it, even more, to boost energy and fight fatigue.
Iron-rich foods include beef, chicken, shellfish, oatmeal, beans, spinach, and peas. Almonds and cashews are also great snacks for boosting iron.
A Final Word on Regaining Strength After Pneumonia: Water!
Finally, hydration is key to fighting fatigue and even more so when you are recovering from pneumonia. Be sure you are drinking at least eight glasses of water per day, which will help with your energy levels along with a nutrient-rich diet.