There are many benefits that come with getting older, but there are also factors to be aware of when it comes to our health and wellness. As we age our body’s natural defenses become less reliable and as a result, seniors are more susceptible to infection - including pneumonia.
Pneumonia is an infection that affects one or both lungs and can range from mild to severe. For some, pneumonia can be fatal.
Older people have a higher risk of getting pneumonia and are more likely to die from it if they do. For US seniors, hospitalization for pneumonia has a greater risk of death compared to any of the other top 10 reasons for hospitalization.
The additional steps that older adults take to protect their health can have long-lasting physical and mental effects. And staying healthy is the best way for seniors to continue living the highest quality of life.
Signs of Pneumonia
Symptoms can include coughing, fever, chills, shortness of breath, chest pain, green or yellow sputum that comes up during coughing, fatigue, and the sudden worsening of a cold or the flu.
Typically, a physician will do a chest X-ray and/or blood test to determine if a senior has pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is usually treated with antibiotics. If the infection is viral, anti-viral medicine may be prescribed. In addition to medication, doctors may give the patient fluids, oxygen, pain relief, and medical support.
Why Pneumonia is More Common in Seniors
Changes to the lungs as we age: Because of changes to the respiratory system that happens with age, seniors can't always effectively clear secretions as well from their lungs. Those secretions can go down into bronchial tubes, causing the infection.
Weakened immune systems: A senior’s immune system has a harder time fighting off infection. And, some health issues can have an even greater negative effect on a senior’s ability to fight off an infection – issues like 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 can also expose seniors to infections that can lead to pneumonia.
People with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia. Pneumonia is particularly dangerous for people with COPD because it causes an increased risk of respiratory failure. This is when your body is either not getting enough oxygen or isn’t successfully removing carbon dioxide. For more information download our eBook on COPD. Some people aren’t sure if their symptoms are from pneumonia or from worsening COPD. This can cause them to wait to seek treatment, which is dangerous.
Reducing the Risk of Pneumonia in Seniors
Seniors should discuss pneumonia prevention with their physician to determine the best plan. Some options to help reduce the risk of pneumonia include:
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.
Practice good hygiene: Wash hands regularly or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Don’t Smoke or Take Steps to Quit: Smoking negatively impacts just about everything in our bodies, but the lungs obviously receive a significant amount of damage. Those who smoke are at a greater overall risk of pneumonia because the lungs’ defense mechanisms become compromised.
Practice a Healthy Lifestyle: Seniors should follow a physician-approved diet and exercise regimen. This will help bolster their immune system and reduce the risk of pneumonia.
If you do get pneumonia or bronchitis, check with your doctor before taking cough medicine and make sure to drink plenty of water. By doing these simple things, the effects of pneumonia or bronchitis will hopefully be less and lessen the impact on your lungs.
For more information and resources for all things senior-related, check out our website!
American Thoracic Society. “Top 20 Pneumonia Facts.” Web. 2018
Mayo Clinic. “Pneumonia -Symptoms and Causes”. Web.
Web MD. “What is Bacterial Pneumonia.” Web. 2016.
Aging.com. “What Causes Pneumonia in the Elderly?” Web. 2018.
American Lung Association. “Lung Health and Diseases: Learn About Pneumonia.”
Everyday Health. “Pneumonia 101: What You Need to Know.” Web. 2019.