Pneumonia in Older Adults


Overview


Pneumonia is an infection where the air sacs of one or both the lungs are inflamed with fluid or pus. It is caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The air sacs filling with fluid or pus can cause a variety of symptoms including, cough with phlegm or pus, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. The severity of the infection can range from mild to life threatening, however people 65 and older are at increased risk for pneumonia being sever leading to hospitalization or death. According to a study by, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, an estimated 1 million older adults are hospitalized for pneumonia, and over a third of those die within 1 year. There are multiple reasons older adults are more vulnerable to pneumonia including, they are more likely to have chronic health conditions such as, cardiovascular disease or diabetes, and they have naturally weakened immune systems from aging.


Symptoms

Symptoms vary in seriousness and may include:

  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough

  • Cough, which may produce phlegm

  • Fatigue

  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills

  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

  • Shortness of breath

Symptoms in older adults can be different from those at lower risk of the disease. Symptoms common in older adults include:

  • Unsteady/weak (increasing risk of falling)

  • Worsening of existing health conditions

  • Lower than normal body temperature

  • Decreased appetite

  • Confusion

  • Loss of bladder control

  • Decreased functional status (the ability to preform everyday tasks)


Causes

The cause of pneumonia is due to a variety of germs such as, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The most common way to get pneumonia is from bacteria and viruses in the air. Sometimes the immune system is not strong enough to overpower the germs and therefore, causes an infection in the lungs. Different types of pneumonia are classified based on where the person received it. The different types of pneumonia include:

  • Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP): This is the most common type of pneumonia. It is acquired outside of a hospital or healthcare facility.

  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia: This type of pneumonia is acquired in a hospital stay for another illness.

  • Health care-acquired pneumonia: This type of pneumonia is acquired at a long-term health care facility.

  • Aspiration pneumonia: This type of pneumonia is acquired when someone inhales food, drink, vomit, or saliva into the lungs.


Prevention and Treatment

To help prevent pneumonia in older adults, you can do the following:

  • Get vaccinated: To prevent pneumonia you can get the pneumococcal vaccine and the influenza vaccine. Talk to your doctor about receiving vaccines and which ones are right for you.

  • Wash your hands: To protect yourself against pneumonia it is important to practice good hygiene. Wash your hands regularly and use hand sanitizer.

  • Don’t smoke: Smoking is damaging to the lungs, making it harder for your body to fight off respiratory infections.

  • Live a healthy lifestyle: Exercising often, sleeping regularly, and eating a balanced diet are all choices you can make to keep your immune system strong and stay healthy.

To treat pneumonia in older adults’ hospitalization is often needed depending on severity of the symptoms and the patient’s overall health. Bacterial pneumonia can be treated with different antibiotics such as, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, or beta-lactams. Pneumonia caused by a virus cannot be treated with antibiotics and treatment may look like sustaining hydration, monitoring vital signs, or prescribing antiviral medicine such as, Tamiflu. Other treatment options for pneumonia in older adults include:

  • Fluids

  • Oxygen therapy

  • Rest

  • Heat and humidity

  • Over the counter medications

See a doctor immediately if you experience any symptoms of pneumonia, especially if you are an older adult. Pneumonia in older adults can become life threatening quickly. Do not hesitate to see a doctor and follow the steps above to stay healthy and help prevent pneumonia.


References

1. “Pneumonia.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 June 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204.

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