Older adults are more vulnerable to illness and pneumonia in seniors is a common complication during cold and flu season. Vive Health explains what pneumonia is, who’s at risk, and common symptoms. They also share 4 useful prevention tips.
When an older adult has a severe cold or the flu, a common complication is for it to turn into pneumonia – a life-threatening illness, especially for seniors.
This essential guide helps you understand what pneumonia is, who’s most at risk, common symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and shares 4 helpful prevention tips.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection that causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs to become inflamed and filled with fluid and pus. That causes coughing with phlegm or pus, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing.
The cause of the infection could be something as innocent as breathing in an airborne droplet with a microscopic bacteria or virus in it. Or it could be a tiny piece of food that went down the wrong pipe into the lungs and breeds bacteria.
Some types of pneumonia are contagious and are passed via coughing and sneezing.
Other types of pneumonia are not contagious, like aspiration pneumonia which is caused by accidentally swallowing food or water into the lungs.
Who is at risk for pneumonia?
There are a handful of factors that increase a person’s risk for developing pneumonia.
- Age – people over age 65 and children under the age of 2 are more susceptible
- Smoking – smoking damages the lungs and makes smokers more vulnerable
- Certain medical conditions – adults with suppressed immune systems or chronic illnesses like heart disease, COPD, and diabetes are at higher risk
- Hospitalization – breathing assistance (like in the intensive care unit in a hospital) can increase lung exposure to bacteria or virus
- Difficulty swallowing – older adults who experience trouble swallowing due to neurological conditions like Parkinson’s, stroke, and dementia are at increased risk of aspiration pneumonia
Pneumonia can present itself in a variety of ways. In mild cases, it may even seem like a long case of the flu.
Common pneumonia symptoms include:
- Cough (sometimes with phlegm or pus)
- Chest pain when breathing or coughing
- Fever, sweating, and chills
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing, lung crackling sounds (heard with a stethoscope)
- Lowered levels of oxygen in the blood
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Pneumonia in seniors may also cause confusion, increased falls, and difficulty with normal functioning.
Pneumonia diagnosis and treatment
What should you do if you suspect that your older adult has pneumonia? See the doctor immediately.
A doctor can quickly order tests that will help diagnose pneumonia and find out what caused the infection. These tests might include a chest x-ray, blood and sputum analyses, CT scans, or lung fluid cultures.
Pneumonia is most often treated at home with antibiotics, cough medicine, and pain relievers or anti-inflammatories (like Tylenol or Advil). In severe cases, hospitalization may be required.
If untreated, pneumonia can become life-threatening. It can result in serious complications like difficulty breathing, fluid building up around the lungs, and fluid-filled abscess forming in a lung cavity.
A bacterial infection could also spread from the lungs into the bloodstream and body’s tissues. This type of widespread infection is known as sepsis and could cause organ failure.
4 tips for pneumonia prevention
Fortunately, there are many ways to protect older adults against this type of life-threatening infection.
Talk about your older adult’s vaccination status with their doctor, especially before cold and flu season gets into full swing.
2. Monitor vitals closely
If your older adult experiences regular bouts of pneumonia, monitor their vital signs closely to watch for signs of infection.
Major changes in blood pressure that might signal a problem are easy to spot with regular bp monitoring. Low oxygen saturation levels can be measured with a basic pulse oximeter and respiration rate can be observed.
All of this information can be recorded and shared with their doctor to help with a diagnosis.
3. Support a healthy immune system
Eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a good sleep routine will strengthen your older adult’s immune system and help them ward off infection.
4. Don’t smoke
Not smoking is very important for health. It will do as much for helping prevent pneumonia as it will to prevent heart disease and cancer.