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Pneumonia in the Elderly: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Recovery

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Pneumonia in the Elderly: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Recovery
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Pneumonia in the Elderly: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Recovery

December 18, 2018

Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, kills more than 50,000 Americans a year, the majority of whom are 65 or older. Pneumonia attacks air sacs in the lungs, causing them to become inflamed and sometimes filled with fluid. The air sacs are responsible for moving oxygen from the lungs to the blood, so pneumonia results in breathing problems and lowers the level of oxygen in the blood.

More than 30 different organisms are responsible for the different kinds of pneumonia, which are classified by what kind of germ causes them and the setting in which people catch them. 

Elderly Man Holding ChinThe bacteria and viruses most often responsible for pneumonia can be spread through the air, or by contact with a person who is infected or with items that person has touched. Pneumonia can range from mild to life-threatening, with viral pneumonia usually being less severe than bacterial pneumonia. Pneumococcal pneumonia, which can also cause meningitis in the brain, is the most common type of bacterial pneumonia, and can be very dangerous in seniors. 

Community-acquired pneumonia is the most common form of pneumonia. It refers to pneumonia that is caught outside of a hospital or other healthcare facility, as opposed to what’s called hospital-acquired or healthcare-associated pneumonia, which is less common and is caught inside one of those facilities. Hospital-acquired pneumonia is more likely to be life-threatening because people who get it are already sick and because when caused by bacteria, it’s more likely to be antibiotic-resistant, making it harder to treat. 

Symptoms of Pneumonia in Adults 65 and Over

Pneumonia symptoms will vary from one senior to the next, but may include:
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Pain in the chest or ribs
  • Fever and chills
  • A lower-than-normal body temperature
  • Cough, especially a wet one that produces phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion or disorientation

It’s easy to confuse these symptoms of pneumonia in adults 65 and over with those of a cold or the flu, or with the effects of aging, but they shouldn’t be ignored. Report potential pneumonia symptoms to a doctor right away.

Causes of Pneumonia in Elderly People

Pneumonia is caused by exposure to germs, most often bacteria or a virus. People of all ages come into contact with the organisms that cause pneumonia, but that contact results in pneumonia more often and in a more aggressive form in seniors. This is because:
  • As people age, their immune systems work less well, leaving them less able to fend off infections.
  • Heart disease, diabetes and other serious illnesses that are common in seniors increase risk of pneumonia.
  • Seniors are more susceptible to the flu and other lung-related conditions, which sometimes develop into pneumonia.
  • Seniors are less likely to be able to produce a strong cough – as a result of a stroke or general frailty – and coughing helps the body expel things that can harm it, such as the germs that cause pneumonia.

Treatment for Pneumonia in Elderly People

If a doctor suspects pneumonia, they will likely order blood tests, as well as a CT scan or chest x-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

Whether the disease is viral or bacterial, pneumonia is treated with rest, nutritious food, and lots of fluids, as well as medication to treat bothersome symptoms like a fever or pain. Viral pneumonia may also be treated with antiviral medications. Bacterial pneumonia is always treated with antibiotics. It’s important that patients take the full course of prescribed antibiotics to prevent the development of drug-resistant bacteria. 

Most seniors are treated for pneumonia at home, but up to a fifth of seniors who live independently and over a fourth of seniors living in a healthcare facility who develop pneumonia receive treatment in the hospital, where they may need oxygen therapy to help them breathe.

Recovery from Pneumonia in Elderly People

Most seniors who develop pneumonia recover from it. But how long it takes to recover depends on many factors, including what bacteria or virus caused it and whether the person is frail or has additional health conditions that make recovery more difficult. Recovery will likely take at least one to three weeks but can take longer.

Sometimes pneumonia that appeared to be gone comes back. When caring for a senior who has pneumonia, watch for any new or worse symptoms and report them to a doctor right away.

Preventing Pneumonia in the Elderly

To lower their risk of pneumonia, seniors should:
  • Wash their hands frequently: Everyone knows this piece of advice, but not everyone follows it. They should though, because frequent handwashing can greatly lower the risk of infections, including pneumonia.
  • Get vaccinated: Getting the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine lowers seniors’ risk of getting bacterial pneumonia. Doctors recommend people get a first dose in their 50s, a second dose at age 65 and an additional dose every five years. An annual flu vaccine can also lower risk of pneumonia, because pneumonia sometimes develops as a complication of the flu.
  • Avoid people who have a cold or the flu: It may feel rude, but safety comes first. Make plans to see them when they’re feeling better. If you must be around people who are sick, wear a medical face mask to protect yourself.
  • Keep their teeth clean: Infected teeth are a prime place for a pneumonia infection to strike. Practice good oral hygiene and visit the dentist regularly to prevent that from happening.
  • Keep their homes clean: Dust, mold and mildew can hurt the lungs and increase risk of pneumonia. Seniors may need help from a loved one or a professional cleaning service to keep their homes free from these irritants.
  • Live a healthy life: Some of the practices used to treat pneumonia, like getting lots of rest, eating healthy and staying hydrated, can also help fend off illness in the first place. Getting regular exercise and choosing not to smoke cigarettes is also important.

By increasing their awareness of pneumonia’s symptoms and the potential impact of the disease, seniors and people who care for seniors can help prevent pneumonia or get it treated early, improving the likelihood of a swift recovery.

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