Written By: Karen Selby, RN,
Last modified: September 27, 2021

Why Does Mesothelioma Increase Pneumonia Risk?

A cancer, such as pleural mesothelioma, that develops in and around the lungs increases pneumonia risk for several reasons, according to Dr. Stephen C. Schimpff, who is board certified in medical oncology and infectious disease.

“If the bronchus is partially obstructed by tumor tissue, then the normal mechanism that sweeps dust, debris and bacteria up and out via sputum into a cough is lost or diminished,” Schimpff told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “This allows bacteria to proliferate and eventually cause infection.” 

Schimpff also said chemotherapy treatments diminish white blood cell count, making infection more severe.

Many patients with malignant mesothelioma ultimately die from pneumonia, respiratory failure or heart complications that are worsened by the asbestos-related cancer.

Mesothelioma patients who develop the flu also have a higher risk of developing life-threatening complications such as pneumonia.

How Can Mesothelioma Be Misdiagnosed as Pneumonia?

The common and severe signs of pneumonia closely resemble symptoms of late-stage pleural mesothelioma. Pneumonia is one of the most common mesothelioma misdiagnoses.

Mesothelioma and many cases of pneumonia share pleural effusion, which is excess fluid in the space that surrounds the lungs. Approximately 90% of mesothelioma patients have pleural effusions, which can cause shortness of breath, dry cough and sharp chest pains.

This symptom overlap can lead to misdiagnosis of mesothelioma as pneumonia.

It is important to know the symptoms of mesothelioma and seek a second opinion from a specialist if you believe you’ve been misdiagnosed with pneumonia.

What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

The signs of pneumonia can vary depending on the type of germ causing the infection, the patient’s age and overall health.

Common Symptoms of Pneumonia

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue and malaise

Severe symptoms of bacterial pneumonia include a fever as high as 105 F, profuse sweating and rapid breathing and heart rate. A patient’s lips or nailbeds may appear bluish in color because of a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Viral pneumonia symptoms are the same as the signs of flu infection at first. Within 12 to 36 hours, patients experience increased shortness of breath and a worsening cough that produces a small amount of mucus. A high fever and a blue tinge to the lips also may occur.

How Does Pneumonia Affect Mesothelioma?

Fighting off pneumonia can be very difficult for mesothelioma patients. Chemotherapy can weaken the body’s immune system. Contracting pneumonia before mesothelioma surgery may delay or cancel the procedure, depending on the how sick the patient gets.

When a person diagnosed with mesothelioma gets pneumonia, it may delay other cancer treatments, too.

Mesothelioma patients may develop pneumonia from the stress of surgery or from frequent trips to hospitals or clinics, where bacteria and airborne viruses are prevalent.

Possible Pneumonia Complications for Mesothelioma Patients

  • Respiratory Failure: Requires a breathing machine or ventilator
  • Sepsis: Occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: A severe form of respiratory failure
  • Lung Abscesses: A condition where pus collects in lung tissue

Telling the difference between the symptoms of pneumonia and mesothelioma may be difficult because they are so similar. Mesothelioma patients should call their doctor right away if they believe they have pneumonia.

How Can Mesothelioma Patients Prevent Pneumonia?

There are several things mesothelioma patients can do to reduce their risk of getting pneumonia.

  • Get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with cancer get a seasonal flu shot. Preventing the flu can prevent viral pneumonia.
  • Wash your hands regularly. You should wash your hands after blowing your nose, after going to the bathroom and before eating or cooking.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking can worsen the symptoms of mesothelioma and damage your lungs’ ability to fight infection.
  • Maintain healthy habits. Getting plenty of rest, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet helps prevent infection and can promote fast recovery if you do get sick.
  • Get the pneumococcal vaccine. This vaccine is recommended for adults at high risk of pneumococcal diseases, including meningitis, bloodstream infections and pneumonia. There are two types of pneumococcal vaccines: PCV13 and PPSV23. Ask your doctor if you need one or both of these options.

Mesothelioma patients should talk to their oncology team before getting a flu shot or pneumococcal vaccine to make sure it’s the right decision.

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