Pneumonia is a Potentially Dangerous Infection for Older Adults

Published: October 02, 2017

By: M. Lee Johnston, RN Educator, LIFE Lawrence County

As the weather gets colder and wetter, we start to hear a lot about flu season, but it is also important to stay informed about another infection that is potentially dangerous for older loved ones – pneumonia.

Pneumonia can originate from bacteria, viruses and other causes, but regardless of the cause of infection, it is one of the most common ailments in older adults. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, more than 60% of seniors over 65 get admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia. It can range in seriousness from mild to life-threatening, and is most serious for infants and young children, people older than 65, and people with health problems or weakened immune systems.

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary, depending on the type of germ causing the infection, your age and overall health. Mild signs and symptoms are often similar to a cold or the flu, but they last longer.

Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • Confusion or changes in mental awareness
  • Cough, which may produce phlegm
  • Fatigue
  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills
  • Lower than normal body temperature
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath

How can you prevent pneumonia?

Know the Symptoms of Pneumonia in the Elderly – There are challenges to the diagnosis of pneumonia in seniors because they may not suffer from the classic symptoms like fever, chills and cough. Keep an eye out for non-respiratory symptoms like weakness, confusion, delirium or dizziness, or other vague symptoms – especially in those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, which can impair the accurate reporting of pneumonia symptoms. Also, it may be more difficult to notice pneumonia symptoms with preexisting symptoms, so be alert to any changes in your loved one’s health. Alert your doctor if any unusual symptoms occur.

Practice Good Hygiene Habits – Ordinary respiratory infections, colds and flu can sometimes lead to pneumonia. Washing your hands regularly or using hand sanitizer can help prevent the spread of these illnesses. Other types of infections, like oral or dental infections, can lead to pneumonia, so good dental hygiene is a must. Lastly, if you want to prevent pneumonia in elderly loved ones, make sure you help them avoid others who are ill.

Make Sure Seniors Get Immunized – Seniors and others at risk for pneumonia should get vaccinated against bacteria pneumococcal pneumonia. It’s a one-time vaccine that can prevent or reduce the severity of pneumonia. Your doctor may also suggest a booster vaccine after five years. It is also a good idea to vaccinate seniors against other illnesses that can lead to pneumonia, particularly influenza.

Don’t Smoke – Smoking is a major risk factor for pneumonia, as it greatly increases a person’s likelihood of getting the disease, because it harms the ability of the lungs to defend against infection. Quitting smoking can help at-risk seniors defend against pneumonia.

Stay in Good General Health – Good overall health habits are critical to preventing pneumonia because they keep the immune system strong and able to fight off infection. Make sure your loved one follows appropriate nutrition guidelines for seniors, as well as getting plenty of rest and physical exercise.

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