Pneumonia affects 450 million people every year, which is about 7% of the global population, with a majority of those affected being seniors and young children. It is typically caused by bacteria or viruses, although autoimmune diseases and other conditions can have the same effect. It occurs when the alveoli, or the microscopic air sacs of the lungs, become inflamed or swollen, and it can occur in one or both lungs. Overall, pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream infections result in thousands of deaths annually in the United States, and of those, about 18,000 are adults ages 65 and older.
It is important for loved ones, friends, and medical staff to be aware of the symptoms of pneumonia because it can be potentially life-threatening. Common symptoms include fever, chest pain, mucus production, difficulty breathing, cough, shaking and/or chills. In some cases, especially among seniors, symptoms such as confusion and dizziness may occur.
If a person is experiencing a more severe episode of pneumonia, more serious symptoms may appear, including persistent vomiting, feeling extremely hot or extremely cold, blue-paled skin, or lower levels of cognitive abilities.
Seniors are less likely to notice that they have pneumonia until it’s too late, making it increasingly important that seniors attend regular check-ups and that loved ones, friends, or caregivers keep an eye out for symptoms of pneumonia. Younger patients will visit their doctor with symptoms like chills, shortness of breath, and chest pain, but seniors with pneumonia are often asymptomatic, meaning that they do not have any visible symptoms. This could be due to the fact that their immune system is already in a somewhat weakened state or that they are used to feeling weaker or less energetic.
When left untreated, pneumonia is life-threatening; the medical community considers it to be as serious as a heart attack. After pus forms in the alveoli, it can spread to the bloodstream, the pleural cavity, or into implanted medical devices, such as a replaced valve or pacemaker.
Seniors are at a greater risk for developing pneumonia due in part to the following reasons:
- They are frail. Older adults may not be able to clear secretions from their lungs, leading to build-up which goes down into bronchial tubes and causes infection.
- They have weakened immune systems. A weaker immune system, due to aging, or a suppressed immune system, due to an organ or bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy treatments, or long-term steroid use, can affect the body’s ability to fight infections.
- They may have other ailments. Diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, lung conditions such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, or COPD, or other ailments can increase the risk for developing pneumonia.
- They have had surgery. Seniors who have had surgery, are experiencing pain, or who are taking pain medication tend to take shallow breaths, resulting in mucus build-up in the lungs and an increased risk for infection.
If you think that your loved one may have pneumonia, it is important to contact a medical professional immediately. A doctor will request chest X-rays and a blood test before providing a diagnosis. Bacterial pneumonia is typically treated with antibiotics — if the infection is viral, the doctor will treat it with an anti-viral medicine. Flu predisposes older adults to pneumonia, so the number of pneumonia cases tends to spike during flu season, but the illness can occur at any time throughout the year. Physicians recommend seniors get both the Prevnar 13 vaccine, which protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria, and the Pneumovax 23 vaccine, which protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people die each year from pneumonia than from automobile accidents. Despite this fact, many seniors and their caregivers don’t know all of the facts about pneumonia, and as a result, could be at serious risk. If a loved one has received a diagnosis of pneumonia, a licensed nurse can support recovery by providing skilled medical care at home and by monitoring vitals. Call NurseRegistry today at 650-462-1001.
Lowrey, Chase, “What Is a Pneumonia and How Does It Affect Seniors,” SeniorDirectory.com, 2016.
Reinberg, S., “Seniors Need 2 Pneumonia Vaccines, CDC Panel Says,” HealthDay, February 3, 2015.
Baskin, K, “Pneumonia vs. the Elderly,” Slate, December 28, 2006.
Sollitto, M., “Why The Elderly are More Susceptible to Pneumonia,” Aging Care, 2011