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Pneumonia in Seniors: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Pneumonia is an infection that affects one or both lungs. The disease can range from mild to severe, and can be fatal.

Published: Jun 10, 2016

Pneumonia in Seniors: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Pneumonia is an infection that affects one or both lungs. The disease can range from mild to severe, and can be fatal. It is typically caused when bacteria, fungi, or viruses enter the lungs and cause inflammation within air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. This inflammation may cause the alveoli to fill with fluid, resulting in difficulty breathing and fever. Common causes of pneumonia include the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia, and viruses such as the flu.

Why Pneumonia is More Common in Seniors
There are several primary reasons why seniors are more susceptible to contracting pneumonia:

  • Frailty. More frail than younger people, seniors can't clear secretions as well from their lungs. Those secretions can go down into bronchial tubes, causing the infection.
  • Weakened Immune Systems. Due to having weaker immune systems, seniors often cannot fight off an infection. A suppressed immune system may also be due to an organ or bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy (treatment for cancer), or long-term steroid use.
  • Senior Health Conditions. Diabetes, Parkinson's disease, chemotherapy, and HIV put seniors at a higher risk for pneumonia, as well as cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and bronchiectasis.
  • Surgery. Seniors who have surgery are susceptible. Seniors experiencing pain or taking pain medication may take shallower breaths, which results in mucus gathering in the lungs.

Signs of pneumonia to look for include coughing, fever, chills, shortness of breath, chest pain, green or yellow sputum that comes up during coughing, feeling lethargic, and the sudden worsening of a cold or the flu.

Pneumonia Treatments
Chest X-rays and a blood test are how doctors can determine if a senior has pneumonia. If it is bacterial pneumonia, it is usually treated with antibiotics. If the infection is viral, an anti-viral medicine may be prescribed. Patients may begin to feel better before finishing their medicine, but should continue taking it as prescribed. If they stop too soon, the pneumonia may return. Doctors may give the patient fluids if he or she is dehydrated, oxygen if there is a breathing problem, along with pain relief and medical support. Milder cases of pneumonia can be cared for at home, but with severe cases ─ or if there are other underlying health conditions ─ hospitalization may be required.

Reducing the Risk of Pneumonia in Seniors
Flu predisposes older people to pneumonia, so the number of cases tends to spike during flu season, but the illness can occur at any time of the year. To help reduce the risk of pneumonia:

  • Get vaccinated. All people over age 65 should get an annual flu shot, as well as a pneumococcal vaccine, a one-time shot that protects against the pneumococcus, or pneumonia bacteria. Discuss this with the doctor first.
  • Practice good hygiene. Wash hands regularly or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • No smoking. It damages the lungs' natural defenses against respiratory infections.
  • Keep the immune system strong. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that anyone who has prolonged contact with seniors should also get vaccinated. Children in the senior’s family should get vaccinated, and caregivers should be vaccinated, too, to avoid getting sick themselves and passing the illness to clients and older members of their own families.

Comfort Keepers® can help. Our caregivers can assist seniors ─ even those who may be recovering after a serious illness at home, or hospitalization. Caregivers can help seniors around the house, and support wellness through proper diet, and by making sure that clients take medications, and get enough sleep and exercise. Call your local office today!

References:
Seniorlifestyle.com. “Preventing Pneumonia in the Elderly.” Web. 2015.
Agingcare.com. “Pneumonia and Elders: Why They Are More Susceptible”. Web. 2016.
Mayoclinic.org. Mayo Clinic. “Pneumonia Prevention”. Web. 2016.
nhlbi.nih.gov. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health. “How Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?” Web. 2016.

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