Heeding The Signs Of 'Galloping' Pneumonia

Posted: May 23, 1990

The "galloping" bacterial pneumonia that killed Muppets creator Jim Henson last week can be controlled - but only if a person recognizes that a mild fever and cough suddenly has become much worse.

Five symptoms can signal the onset of bacterial pneumonia, a condition that can be life-threatening, according to Dr. Paul Epstein, chief of Graduate Hospital's pulmonary division.

"If a person with a low-level virus suddenly develops high fever and chill, a cough with phlegm, or phlegm mixed with blood, or chest pain, or shortness of breath, these five things should tip you off that you need to see a doctor immediately.

"You should not sit around to see if you get better."

Henson died after streptococcus pneumonia group A, a swift-moving form of bacterial pneumonia, attacked his lungs. Just days before his death, Henson believed he merely had a cold.

Streptococcus group A can spread quickly from the lungs to other organs, leading to kidney failure, heart failure, shock and hemorrhaging.

If caught soon enough, this form of pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. Often, bacterial pneumonia can develop after a person's immune system has been weakened by a bout of viral pneumonia, often called "walking pneumonia."

"People with viral pneumonia may have a mild fever, an annoying cough and generally feel lousy, but they are able to function," said Epstein. "But anyone whose fever is 103 or more should see their doctor."

One difference between the two illnesses is that "viral pneumonia sneaks up on you and bacterial pneumonia hits you over the head," he said.

It was viral pneumonia that put Elizabeth Taylor near death last month. Taylor was hospitalized with a sinus infection but her condition deteriorated into viral pneumonia and she had to be placed on a ventilator before the virus was controlled.

While viral pneumonia becoming this severe is rare, it is not unheard of. In fact, among new military recruits, viral pneumonia is a serious problem as young people from around the nation come together in the close quarters of the barracks. "In this situation, viral pneumonia can be very fast in onset and very severe to the point of being lethal," Epstein said.

The symptoms of viral pneumonia, which does not respond to antibiotics, are treated with Tylenol to reduce fever and pain, a liquid diet and bed rest.

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