Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that inflames the air sacs lining the lungs. Pus may form, reducing the amount of oxygen flowing through the blood. The condition typically causes breathing issues, coughing, fever and chills. Although pneumonia can affect people of all ages, children younger than 2 and adults over 65 are the most vulnerable.
For seniors, age-related changes, a weakened immune system and pre-existing conditions can affect lung function and how oxygen circulates in the body. Each year, an estimated one million older adults are hospitalized with pneumonia or related complications.
Why Are Older Adults More Vulnerable to Pneumonia?
The aging body has to work harder to fight off infection. Seniors also have decreased muscle mass and may live with conditions like COPD, asthma, heart disease and diabetes.
Factors posing complications for seniors who contract pneumonia include:
- Muscle weakness and frailty, which can make coughing a challenge
- A weaker immune system that can no longer fight off infection like it used to
- Chronic health conditions increase an older adult’s chances of contracting pneumonia
- Recent surgery that has consumed the body’s resources for healing
Different Symptoms for Seniors
Another concern, pneumonia symptoms can present differently in seniors. Older adults may display some of the classic signs, including:
- Coughing up phlegm
- Low body temperature
- Decreased energy
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
Yet these symptoms may also be accompanied by:
- Balance issues
- Inability to perform day-to-day tasks
- Urinary incontinence
- Loss of appetite
- A suddenly worsening health condition
In older adults, pneumonia may be misdiagnosed as something less severe. Yet because symptoms can quickly become aggressive, you’re encouraged to get medical attention as soon as possible.
Once a senior is diagnosed with pneumonia, they may be given antibiotics, cough medicine or a pain reliever, along with oxygen therapy or another breathing treatment. Due to the high risk for complications, you’re advised to take the full course of each medication, rather than stopping when symptoms appear to improve.
Pneumonia Complications for Seniors
As the body has a hard time fighting off pneumonia, older adults can quickly develop severe, potentially fatal complications, including:
- Bacteremia, an infection that starts in the lungs and can spread to other organs
- Pleurisy, inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs
- Lung abscesses
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can lead to respiratory failure
- Organ damage from a lack of oxygen circulating throughout the body, in conjunction with pre-existing conditions
- A urinary tract infection, as bacteria from the lungs can gather in the kidneys, bladder or urethra
Where and How Seniors May Contract Pneumonia
Being around people increases your risk of contracting pneumonia. However, specific scenarios apply to older adults:
- Healthcare Settings: Older adults have a higher risk of getting pneumonia here, compared to other age groups.
- Community-Acquired Pneumonia: In a large group of people, you have a higher risk of contracting pneumonia. This includes senior care settings and family gatherings.
- Aspiration: Due to muscle weakness, older adults have a higher risk for developing pneumonia when outside particles and fluid enter the lungs.
Older adults are more likely to develop the condition from bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae and haemophilus influenzae, as well as common respiratory viruses like the flu.
Preventing Pneumonia In Older Adults
To lessen your risks for pneumonia:
- Get the pneumococcal vaccine
- Get your flu shot each year
- Practice good hygiene, including washing your hands and wiping down surfaces
- Avoid behaviors that could weaken your immune system, including smoking
- Continue to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly
- Limit travel and group activities
Are you concerned about an older loved one contracting pneumonia? The medical professionals at West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center can offer guidance and provide additional resources. To learn more, contact us today.
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