Pneumonia may be taking a back seat in our minds this year to COVID-19 and the onset of the flu season, but it is a serious disease, especially for older adults. Seniors are four times more likely than younger people to contract pneumonia, and constitute the majority of people who die from the disease each year.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by germs, such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe and oxygenate the blood.

Let’s look at why pneumonia is particularly dangerous for older adults. What are its symptoms? How is it diagnosed and treated? And what can seniors do to protect themselves from it?

Pneumonia in Older Adults

Pneumonia is particularly aggressive in seniors. Researchers believe this may be attributable to weaker immune systems, decreased lung function, and other underlying health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in older adults. In addition, people with respiratory conditions, or those recovering from surgery, are more susceptible to pneumonia. Diabetes, dementia, heart disease, and emphysema also increase risk.

Complications include potentially fatal bloodstream infections, inflammation of the membrane that covers the lungs, abscesses in the lungs, and acute respiratory distress, which may require the use of a ventilator to help with breathing.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

According to the Mayo Clinic, pneumonia symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Confusion or changes in mental awareness (especially in adults age 65 and older)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever, sweating, and shaking chills
  • Lower than normal body temperature (especially in adults older than age 65 and people with weak immune systems)
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath

The Mayo Clinic recommends contacting your doctor or seeking medical care if you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent fever of 102 F (39 C) or higher, or a persistent cough, especially if you’re coughing up mucus.

You may need to be hospitalized if you are older than 65, have some of the symptoms above, and:

  • You are confused about time, people, or places
  • Your kidney function has declined
  • Your systolic blood pressure is below 90/60, which means 90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or your diastolic blood pressure is 60 mm Hg or below
  • Your breathing is rapid (30 breaths or more a minute)
  • You need breathing assistance
  • Your temperature is below your typical normal
  • Your heart rate is below 50 or above 100

For some older adults and people with heart failure or chronic lung problems, pneumonia can quickly become a life-threatening condition. You may be admitted to the intensive care unit if you need to be placed on a breathing machine (ventilator) or if your symptoms are severe.

Diagnosis and Treatment

As there are different types of pneumonia, it is diagnosed through a variety of means: a chest X-ray, blood tests, a pulse oximeter reading that measures the level of oxygen in the blood, a sample of fluid from the lungs analyzed to determine the cause of the infection or CT scans.

Because there are different types of pneumonia, there are different treatments. Depending upon type and severity, these could include antibiotics, cough medications, fever reducers, and pain relievers, or rest and drinking a lot of fluids.

Note: It is vitally important that medications for pneumonia be taken strictly, and completely as prescribed by your physician or the disease may return.

Pneumonia Prevention

  1. Vaccination. Seniors are encouraged to receive vaccinations for pneumonia, particularly if they have some underlying condition that can increase the risk of infection. According to the American Lung Association, a flu vaccination is also important in protecting against pneumonia as the flu, is a common cause of the disease.
  2. Wash your hands. Do this frequently, especially before and after preparing food, eating or using the bathroom. As with COVID-19 prevention guidance, a thorough washing of at least 20 seconds is advisable.
  3. Don’t smoke. Smoking damages the lung’s ability to fight off infection.
  4. Take care of your health. Managing chronic illnesses, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may prevent a person from getting sick or make it easier to recover from pneumonia.
  5. Avoid close contact. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, mask wearing and social distancing are recommended for when it is necessary to be in a public place. Some pneumonia germs spread from person to person so taking these precautions will also aid in pneumonia prevention.

It is especially important to stay alert and recognize your symptoms during this cold and flu season. If you or a senior loved one are experiencing symptoms, please see your doctor. For more tips to stay healthy this season, visit our blog.