Pneumonia in the Elderly

by | Oct 25, 2018


Pneumonia Overview [1] [2]

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, pneumonia combined with influenza was the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2018.  In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about one million people seek medical or emergency room care to treat pneumonia. Out of those who look for treatment, 1 out of every 20 dies, which equates to 50,000 deaths.  Pneumonia is a very dangerous disease and is particularly deadly for seniors, making your role as a caregiver even more important.

Pneumonia is “…an inflammation of the lungs usually caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or other organisms.”[1] This inflammation leads to a discharge of fluid in the infected part of the lungs.  There are over two dozen strains of pneumonia that results from different bacteria or viruses, and older adults are more likely to catch the streptococcus (or pneumococcal) strain.  According to the CDC, this type of pneumonia causes about 40,000 deaths each year. Viruses can also trigger the disease – about 50% of pneumonia cases are caused by one.

The elderly are more vulnerable to pneumonia because of weakened immune systems and other pre-existing health complications.    

Symptoms of Pneumonia [1] [2]

It’s important to note that pneumonia is caused by over two dozen organisms and thus, the symptoms can vary in each case. Contact your client’s doctor immediately if they experience any of the following symptoms.

  • Feeling weak (fatigue)
  • Cough
  • Green or yellow phlegm (mucus)
  • Chest pain
  • Rib pain
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath

It’s very common to confuse pneumonia with the common cold as the symptoms and level of intensity can be very similar. However, this confusion can lead to life-threatening complications. In addition, it is thought that pneumonia symptoms in older adults can differ from that of the general population.  For example, elders may be lethargic, lose their appetites, or become dizzy and fall. Moreover, if an individual has dementia, they may have difficulty communicating how they feel, making it increasingly important to know pneumonia signs and symptoms.  Again, contact your client’s doctor if they experience any of the symptoms or signs.

Pneumonia Treatment [1] [2]

A simple diagnostic test can discover if your client has pneumonia.  Treatment is usually dependent on which organism initially triggered the disease.  However, your client’s doctor will ultimately determine which form of treatment is best for your client based on any other health complications.  For viral pneumonia, medication is typically not given as those affected can recover without it. However, some patients may be prescribed antiviral medications.  Antibiotics are also not effective against viral pneumonia and are therefore not prescribed. Unlike viral pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia patients are always given antibiotics. For healthy adults, pneumonia can about three weeks to recover from. However, if an adult has any health complications, this recovery time can take as long as 60 days.

Pneumonia Prevention [1] [2]

There are a few ways to prevent pneumonia.  Talk with your client’s doctor to determine which is best for them.

  • Pneumococcal vaccine
    • Helps prevent twenty-three of the pneumonia strains.       
  • Influenza vaccine
    • It is very common for pneumonia to be caused by the flu.  
  • Hand washing
    • Keep hands free from germs.  To learn more about infection prevention, click here.
  • Dental hygiene
    • Pneumonia can occur in infected teeth, so make sure your client sees their dentist regularly.
  • Healthy lifestyle
    • Healthy eating, exercising, as well as resting can decrease the effects of pneumonia.

Walking Pneumonia[3][4]

Another form of pneumonia is “walking pneumonia.”  Walking pneumonia (also known as atypical pneumonia) is an informal term for the disease and it is not as severe as other types of pneumonia.  Walking pneumonia feels very similar to a cold as the symptoms are mild. Specifically, pneumonia symptoms involve high fevers and mucus-producing coughs, whereas walking pneumonia symptoms involve low fevers and dry coughs.  

The symptoms of walking pneumonia include:

  • Mild fever that is less than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough that lasts longer than a week
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Labored breathing

Even though walking pneumonia isn’t as serious as pneumonia, still inform your client’s doctor about their symptoms. Confusing any type of pneumonia with walking pneumonia or a cold can be a life-threatening mistake.

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