Ben Fogle – ‘I just thought it was a bad cold’

Adventurer Ben Fogle warns that pneumonia can strike at any time, writes Fiona Jerome.

Ben Fogle’s work has taken him all over the world, from the South Pole to the Arctic Circle. The adventurer and broadcaster has rowed the Atlantic Ocean and run across the Sahara. Fit and active, he had no idea a nagging cold would turn out to be pneumonia.

“I was on holiday in Portugal in July 2014 when I realised the cold I had wasn’t budging and I was becoming more and more unwell,” he says. “I just thought I had a bad cold and didn’t really think there was too much wrong with me. As soon as I went to seek help, the doctor in Portugal diagnosed it.”

Fogle had thought pneumonia was not a disease that young, fit people could get. Now he knows better. “It’s more common than you think and can affect anyone at any age, not just those who are ill or elderly,” he says.

More than 26,000 UK adults die of pneumonia each year. Fogle was lucky and got the treatment he needed. Even so, he was surprised at how debilitating the condition was.“I had to take several courses of antibiotics, but, luckily, it had no lasting effects,” he says. “It was a horrid thing to go through and took me more than six months to recover. Physically it’s very draining: I was so poorly I couldn’t lift my own children.”

Now the face of Expect the Unexpected, a campaign to make people more aware of the risks of pneumonia, Fogle is keen to counteract the idea that only ill or elderly people are affected.

According to Dr Eleanor Giddings, consultant chest physician at Benenden Hospital, the disease is most common worldwide among “the very young, the malnourished, those over 65 years of age, those with weakened immune systems, smokers and those with other medical conditions, including diabetes, and cardiovascular and lung disease”. But, she warns: “It can also occur in healthy people and after a viral upper respiratory tract infection, including flu.”

You can catch pneumonia from inhaling bacteria and viruses when an infected person coughs or sneezes. “Transmission can also occur from contaminated surfaces if you then touch your mouth or nose,” says Dr Giddings.

Like many people, Fogle believed he just had a lingering cold. He says: “If your cold has developed – and symptoms include fever, coughing, rapid breathing, chest pains, loss of appetite or a general feeling of weakness – you need to seek help, not self-medicate. Pneumonia can be dangerous and you need to see a doctor.”

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The statistics

Every year in the UK, up to one in every 100 – approximately 630,000 – adults will develop pneumonia. More than 26,000 adults in the UK die of pneumonia each year

Fact file


What you need to know

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is the swelling of the tissues in your lungs, usually caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia. The lungs are a network of breathing tubes leading to tiny air sacs. With pneumonia, these sacs become inflamed and full of fluid, making it hard to breathe.

What is it caused by?

There are several kinds of pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is the most common, but it can also be caused by respiratory viruses or by breathing something, such as food particles or fungal spores, into your lungs.

How can you prevent it?

If you have a respiratory illness, cover your mouth and nose with a hanky when you sneeze or cough, throw away used tissues immediately and then wash your hands to avoid spreading germs.

A study from Queen Mary University of London suggests small, regular doses of vitamin D could halve the number of respiratory infections, including pneumonia, in people with low levels of vitamin D. In those with normal levels, there was a reduction of 10% in infection rates.

Vaccinations against some common strains of pneumonia are available on the NHS for at-risk groups or from pharmacies at a cost of approximately £70.

How is it treated?

Mild pneumonia is treated at home with a course of antibiotics and plenty of rest. If it’s more serious, you may need a chest x-ray, and sputum and blood tests. Possible complications of pneumonia – most common in young or elderly people, or those with a serious health condition such as diabetes – include blood poisoning, pleurisy and lung abscesses, and may lead to respiratory failure.