Pneumonia in the elderly is often life-threatening. It accounts for an average of 50,000 plus deaths per year. Influenza (the flu) is the cause of most pneumonia cases. However, there are over 30 different types of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are linked to the disease. Bacterial pneumonia tends to be more severe than viral pneumonia in those over 65.
What You Should Know about Pneumonia in the Elderly
- Pneumonia is very common in seniors
- A million people in the U.S. contract pneumonia every year
- Pneumonia takes one to three weeks to recover from
- There are ways to prevent pneumonia
Types of Pneumonia in The Elderly
Unlike young, healthy individuals, older people generally have less effective lungs, which puts them at a much higher risk of receiving a lung disease. The most common lung disease that an elderly person can develop is called pneumonia.
There are several different types of pneumonia and it can enter the body through various forms, but typically enters the body through bacteria. In order to give you a better understanding of the disease we have put together a list of the most common types of pneumonia found in elderly individuals.
Bacterial Pneumonia and Bacteria-like Organisms
The most common form of bacterial pneumonia in the U.S. is Streptococcus pneumonia. It can happen singularly or in combination with the flu or a cold. Bacterial pneumonia that affects only one lobe of the lung is called lobar pneumonia.
Mycoplasma pneumonia (also known as “walking pneumonia”) is a bacteria-like affliction that leads to pneumonia, usually in a mild form. Young people who suffer from mycoplasma often do not require bed rest, but it is advisable that elderly individuals take greater care and receive enough rest and medication to combat the disease.
Fungi and Pneumonia
Seniors with chronic health problems or a weakened immune system are at risk of natural-occurring fungi. Also, if the individual inadvertently inhales a large amount of fungi from the soil while gardening or cleaning a bird cage, they can quickly develop pneumonia. The occurrence of the fungi varies depending on geographic location.
Viruses Cause Pneumonia
Viruses that cause colds and influenza may also cause pneumonia. Viral pneumonia can be mild or very serious.
Hospital Acquired Pneumonia
Elderly individuals often contract pneumonia during a hospital stay. Hospital-acquired pneumonia is very dangerous because antibiotic resistant bacteria frequently causes it. A person on a ventilator is at an increased risk of developing this form of pneumonia.
Stroke victims or those with dementia often develop aspiration pneumonia by accidentally inhaling food, vomit, liquid, or saliva into their lungs. Certain medications can also cause swallowing problems. In addition, the excessive use of alcohol or drugs renders the person at risk.
Health Care-Acquired Pneumonia
Elderly individuals living in long term care facilities or those who frequently visit outpatient clinics for treatments such as kidney dialysis may come down with health care-acquired pneumonia. Pneumonia is highly resistant to antibiotics, which makes it difficult to treat. This form of pneumonia is extremely dangerous and can prove life-threatening.
Community Acquired Pneumonia (CAP)
The term ‘community acquired pneumonia (CAP)’ refers to pneumonia that is caught in the environment. At least 10% of CAP sufferers will be placed in the ICU. The death rate in the ICU averages 25 percent.
Sufferers of institutional-acquired pneumonia (IAP) have a far greater mortality rate because they were already sick or injured when they contracted pneumonia in a hospital or nursing home.
What is Pneumonia?
Bacteria and viruses can cause inflammation in the lungs. The body then reacts by filling the air sacs with fluid. Blood flow also decreases significantly so the lungs fail to receive the oxygen that they need. The decline is rapid in those over 65 and especially over 85. The effects are very widespread.
Elderly at Increased Risk for Pneumonia
Every day people encounter germs that cause pneumonia, but the young and healthy are rarely in danger. However, seniors are at a significantly increased risk. Pneumonia tends to be far more aggressive with the elderly.
The reasons why pneumonia attacks aging individuals:
- Aging immune system that is less effective at fighting off infections
- Chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease
- Lung related problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Frailty that makes it hard to produce a strong cough
Symptoms of Pneumonia in the Elderly
The symptoms of pneumonia do vary and depend a great deal on the senior’s physical state. In some, the symptoms come on rapidly and in others they may start occurring after a bout with the flu or a cold.
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the chest or ribs
- Cough that may be wet or produce phlegm
- Lower-than-normal body temperature
If your physician suspects that you have pneumonia, then they will likely order a chest x-ray or CT scan, as well as some blood tests. Most seniors will be treated at home, but some may require hospitalization where they can receive life-saving oxygen therapy.
The following treatments are common for pneumonia cases:
- Diet of nutritious foods
- Medications for fever and pain
Recovery from Pneumonia
Recovering from pneumonia differs between the elderly and has many variables. Was pneumonia caused by a virus or bacteria? Is the senior frail and in poor health? Typically, recovering from pneumonia can take anywhere from one to three weeks.
It is not uncommon for pneumonia that appears to be gone to make a comeback, and the second time might be even worse as the lung infection rebounds with a vengeance.
Seniors should take precautions to prevent pneumonia, especially during the cold and flu season. However, you can take preventative measures.
Wash Your Hands Frequently
Frequent handwashing will significantly reduce your chance of contracting pneumonia. Always use an anti-bacterial hand soap.
Receive Regular Vaccinations
The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine will lower your risk of contracting bacterial pneumonia. Ideally, you should receive your first dose in your 50s, a second dose at 65, and then a dose every five years. Along with the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination, you should also get a yearly influenza vaccination to prevent the flu.
Maintain Good Dental Hygiene
If you have infected teeth, then you are at risk of contracting pneumonia. Visit a dentist regularly and practice good dental hygiene.
Avoid Sick People
If you find out that your friends have a cold or the flu, then you should avoid visiting them to prevent catching the illness. If you must visit a doctor’s office where there will be sick people, then you should wear a face mask as a precaution.
Maintain a Clean Home
Mold, mildew, and common household dust irritate the lungs and place you at an increased risk of developing pneumonia. If you are unable to clean your home, then you should seek the help of a professional cleaning service.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Eat a healthy diet, get lots of rest, and always stay hydrated to avoid illnesses. Also, regular exercise is ideal.
Do not smoke cigarettes or vape tobacco products which damage your lungs.
Common Questions About Pneumonia in the Elderly
Q: Am I at Risk for Pneumonia?
Pneumonia strikes those over 65 more frequently than any other age group.
Q: What else can I do to keep my lungs healthy?
You should steer clear of smokers, avoid smog-filled cities, and other allergens.
Q: Do older people always exhibit classic signs of pneumonia?
Older people often do not exhibit the typical symptoms of pneumonia. It is not uncommon for them not to show signs of a respiratory infection.
Q: Is there a pneumonia season?
Fall and winter are considered the most common times to contract pneumonia. However, it can occur at any time.
Q: When should I call a doctor?
It is advised that you never wait to call a doctor if you are a senior and you fear that you might have pneumonia. The sooner you receive treatment, the better the chance of a full recovery.
Pneumonia in the elderly is serious and can become life-threatening if not treated. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that around a million individuals will contract pneumonia each year in the United States and become sick enough to seek help at their local emergency room.
If you are a senior and you fear that you have pneumonia, then it is imperative that you seek out medical care.