Preventing Pneumonia

Simple steps for breathing easier after surgery
Patient Education Facilitator
Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 11:30am

If your treatment plan includes surgery, you should know that your recovery will be slower if you get pneumonia. Your medical team will take steps to prevent it, but you’ll play an important role, too. Here’s what you need to know.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the tiny airways (bronchioles) and air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. Normally the alveoli fill with air when you breathe, but when you have pneumonia, they have fluid and pus in them, so air has a hard time getting in and breathing becomes painful. Pneumonia is usually caused by bacteria, but it can also be caused by viruses, fungi, and parasites.

Certain factors can increase your risk of pneumonia — for example, age (younger than one year or older than 65), chronic illness, smoking, excessive alcohol use, and a weakened immune system. General anesthesia and surgery can also increase your risk.

How does surgery increase the risk?

When you breathe in, your body warms and humidifies the air, and mucus traps dirt and germs. The cilia (hair-like projections lining your airways) sweep dirt and germs toward your mouth, where they can be eliminated. General anesthesia and the endotracheal tube inserted in your throat during surgery can cause the normal secretions in your airways to thicken or dry up, preventing the cilia from doing their job. Follow the steps below to help prevent germy mucus from collecting in your airways and causing pneumonia.

  • Move! As soon as your nurse says it’s OK, get out of bed to sit in a chair and take short walks.
  • Take care of your mouth and teeth. Removing germs from your mouth keeps them from traveling down your airway to your lungs. Your doctor may give you a prescription mouthwash to use.
  • Always keep the head of your hospital bed at a 30-degree angle.
  • Do your deep breathing and coughing exercises.
  • When you are awake, use your incentive spirometer 10 times every hour. Your nurse will show you how.

Deep breathing and coughing may be painful after abdominal surgery. If so, talk to your nurse about ways to control the pain so you can do your exercises.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

  • Fever
  • Shaking chills
  • Cough
  • Painful breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • For older people, changes in mental status. (People over age 65 who have a weakened immune system may have a lower-than-normal temperature.)