Pneumonia in the Elderly: What You Need to KnowPneumonia in the Elderly: What You Need to Know

No one actually likes going to the hospital. Being sick is bad enough, but getting sick to the point where you have to leave your own comfy bed to stay in a generic hospital room makes it all feel more dramatic. Making matters worse for seniors, the combination of a weakened immune system and hospitalization can often mean pneumonia.

Unfortunately, pneumonia falls into that category of illnesses that are inconvenient and unpleasant for everyone, but regularly cause far more serious consequences for seniors. Seniors are both more prone to pneumonia and at a greater risk of dying because of it.  

Why Seniors Are Susceptible to Pneumonia

Pneumonia’s very contagious, so it can often spread around assisted living or nursing home facilities quickly. In fact, it’s the second most common infection acquired in nursing homes. Pneumonia often attacks when someone’s immune system is weakened by another illness and it very commonly goes hand in hand with the flu. Since seniors have weaker immune systems than younger adults, their risk of having other types of illnesses that help open the door to pneumonia is higher.

Just as other health problems weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to pneumonia, the pneumonia will weaken your immune system further, making you more sensitive to a host of other health issues. In addition, since seniors are slower to show the typical symptoms of pneumonia once they contract it, and less likely to recognize the symptoms as being specific to pneumonia, they’re often not as quick to seek out treatment.  

All this adds up to very bad news for seniors. Death by pneumonia (often coupled with another physical ailment, or several) is common. You must take the proper precautions to make sure that your loved one increases their chances of ducking pneumonia altogether, or living through the illness if they get it.

What You Can Do to Prevent Pneumonia

First things first: prevention. The ideal is to never get pneumonia to begin with, so everything you can do to help your loved one reduce their risk should be done.  Much of the list of steps you can take to help avoid pneumonia is familiar:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise.
  • Get plenty of sleep.

All the healthy tips you hear when reading any article about any health issue predictably apply here as well. Developing as healthy a lifestyle as possible will help strengthen your immune system, so you get sick less often and heal faster when you do.

For pneumonia, we’ve got a few additional recommendations to add to the list.

  • Get your flu shot.  Pneumonia often shows up in seniors who already have the flu. Avoiding the flu is a good idea anyway, but it will also reduce your risk of contracting pneumonia considerably.
  • Get the pneumococcal vaccine.  It doesn’t cover all types of pneumonia, but anything is better than nothing. The vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 65, along with children and anybody with typical risk factors.
  • Avoid people that are sick. This may be hard to pull off for any senior that lives in a nursing home or becomes hospitalized, but do what you can. Having a weak immune system to start with makes seniors more likely to catch illnesses from others.

Even if you do your best to follow all these guidelines, you still may find yourself with pneumonia. If that happens, the most important next step is to recognize it quickly.

The Symptoms of Pneumonia to Look Out For

It can be easy to attribute many of these to other illnesses or health issues, but if your loved one experiences more than one of them, or if you feel that what they’re experiencing goes beyond the norm, better to be safe than sorry. Get to a doctor to find out for sure whether or not it’s pneumonia if you see any of these symptoms:

  • A cough, especially if it produces mucus. If it produces mucus that’s green or tinged with blood, then definitely head to a doctor fast.
  • Fever
  • Chills that cause shaking
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling weak
  • Chest pain – often made worse by the coughing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Confusion or delirium

Unfortunately, seniors often exhibit fewer symptoms or milder ones (such as a cough without mucus). That means even minor symptoms could point toward a serious problem. Don’t be afraid of seeming like a hypochondriac. Talk to your doctor if you’re worried.

How to Protect Your Loved One from Death By Pneumonia

“Death by pneumonia” sounds so dramatic, but we have to address it because it happens. And often it happens in the situations where people least expect it.  Don’t assume your loved one is safe in a hospital because there are lots of doctors around to recognize a problem. When a senior is in a hospital around other sick people, that’s one of the times they’re at the highest risk.

If your loved one gets sick, do everything the doctor says to help them get well as soon as possible. Urge them to drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest, and take any prescriptions the doctor has ordered. Ideally, you want to get them back on their feet and feeling better long before they reach the point of needing hospitalization.

If your loved one does need to be hospitalized, stay close and keep an eye on them. You know better than the doctors if a symptom they’re exhibiting is out of the ordinary for them. Being there to point it out could make the difference in how quickly they’re treated. Most healthcare professionals should know to wash their hands before working with patients, but you can keep an eye on this as well. If you don’t see them washing their hands, it’s ok to ask (even if it occasionally annoys). Their cleanliness has a direct impact on your loved one’s likelihood of catching pneumonia.

How to Treat Pneumonia

Once your doctor knows that pneumonia is behind your loved one’s symptoms, they can prescribe the proper antibiotics or antivirals to treat it. Even if the symptoms start to go away and your loved one finds themselves feeling much better before they finish off the medicine, it’s important to take the full run of pills the doctor ordered to keep the pneumonia from coming back.

It’s often possible to take care of your loved one from home if their case isn’t too severe. Make sure they get lots of fluids, eat healthy, and avoid smoking until the illness has past (although keeping those things up after it’s passed is a good idea too).

And one more thing…

Keep yourself healthy as well. A caregiver with pneumonia (or any other illness that’s contagious) puts the senior they’re taking care of at risk. Your health is just as important to their health as anything else you do.  If you let the caregiving stress you out too much, it will weaken your immune system and make you more prone to the illnesses that can cause pneumonia.

Self-care is an important component to taking care of someone else successfully. If you weren’t already making a careful point of making time for you, I hereby give you permission to do so as a selfless act that will protect the health of your loved one and reduce their chances of catching pneumonia.

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based copywriter and lifelong student with an ongoing curiousity to learn and explore new things. She turns that interest to researching and exploring subjects helpful to seniors and their families for SeniorAdvisor.com.

1 Comment

  1. Beth Walker June 6, 2016 Reply

    I think it can be quite easy to dismiss pneumonia as a cold or the flu, but especially in vulnerable people you need to make sure you are watching the signs so that it doesn’t develop even worse.

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