Pneumonia & Seniors: What You Should Know

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that affects the alveoli (tiny air sacs). If the alveoli become inflamed or filled with pus due to an infection, it can become harder to breathe, and the lungs cannot oxygenate the blood as effectively.

There is no single cause of pneumonia, nor one single risk factor for the disease. But because older adults tend to have multiple risk factors associated with the disease, they tend to be more vulnerable to contracting it.

For example, seniors who cannot cough very effectively after suffering a stroke or as a result of general frailty may be at particular risk for pneumonia. If they cannot produce a strong cough, they are unable to expel potentially infectious elements from their lungs and then become more vulnerable to contracting pneumonia.

How do I know if my loved one is at risk for pneumonia – or already has it?

Your loved one should see a doctor immediately if he or she is experiencing difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent fever of 102 degrees or higher, or persistent cough (especially if coughing up pus), especially if your loved one:

  • is age 65 or older
  • smokes
  • has an underlying health condition like asthma, COPD or heart disease
  • has a weakened immune system
  • receives chemotherapy or is taking medication that suppresses the immune system (such as those who have had an organ transplant)
  • is or was recently hospitalized

Pneumonia can quickly become life-threatening among vulnerable or high-risk older adults. According to the CDC, pneumococcal pneumonia kills about 1 in 20 older adults who get it.

See a doctor if your loved one shows symptoms like:

  • cough which produces greenish, yellow or bloody mucus; or, a dry cough or an inability to cough due to frailty or pain
    fever, sweating and shaking chills
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when breathing deeply or coughing
  • loss of appetite
  • low energy and fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting
  •  confusion, delirium or other changes in mental awareness
  • fingertips or toes that appear blue (due to lack of oxygen)

Pneumonia is diagnosed through several means, which may include a physical exam, a review of medical history, a chest x-ray, blood tests, pulse oximetry (measures the oxygen level in blood), and a sputum test of mucus. High-risk patients or those who are hospitalized may have additional tests.

Prevention and Protection

Following are actions you and your loved one can take to minimize the risk of contracting pneumonia:

  • Ensure your loved one gets a flu vaccination (consult with the doctor, first). Encourage those who visit your loved one to get flu shots, as well (especially children).
  • Avoid close contact with others who are ill.
  • Wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer.
  • Immediately investigate and remedy any musty, moldy or mildew smells in your loved one’s home, as mold can lead to lung irritation and inflammation – paving the way for pneumonia.
  • If your loved one smokes, encourage them to quit and connect them with resources. Ensure your loved one is not exposed to others who smoke (or to fireplace smoke).
  • Help your loved one get enough sleep, regular exercise and maintain healthy diet.

EveryStep Home Care can help your loved one with these precautions and cares – especially among older adults who are recovering or recuperating from injury and illness. Contact EveryStep Home Care to learn more.