According to the American Lung Association, next to influenza, pneumonia is ranked as the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. The elderly population is much more prone to catching the illness.
What Is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection (viral, bacterial, or fungal) of the lungs. Cases can range in severity. Milder cases sometimes get referred to as “walking” pneumonia because the infected person doesn’t have to stay in bed. More severe cases require bedrest. Typically, pneumonia exists when a patient’s immune system is weakened due to another illness, such as bronchitis or the flu. Many people develop it in the hospital. During the illness, seniors will need support from a caregiver.
Why Are the Elderly More Susceptible to Pneumonia?
A few factors make seniors more susceptible than younger people:
Weakened Immune System
While symptoms like chills, shortness of breath, and chest pain will stand out to younger individuals, they may register as fairly typical among the elderly, given their already weakened immune response. As a result, a senior may not even notice the signs of pneumonia, and thus may not seek help.
Smaller Lung Capacity
As we age, our lung capacity shrinks. This makes it harder to cough up sputum, the mucus our lungs secrete in order to clear infections. By consequence, infections can fester among older adults and, worse, the mucus may accumulate in the bronchial tubes, preventing oxygen from entering the blood and cells of the body.
Residing in an assisted living community or nursing home puts your parent at greater risk of contracting pneumonia due to the close proximity of potentially infected residents, visitors, and workers. This is known as community-acquired pneumonia (CAP).
Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Older adults with dementia may not communicate that they’re not feeling well, thus allowing an infection to go unnoticed and worsen.
Why is Pneumonia a More Serious Condition for the Elderly?
Seniors are more likely to have other conditions, such as heart disease or COPD, that when combined with pneumonia can create dangerous complications and even death. Even a mild case of pneumonia can further weaken a senior’s already weak immune system, which can turn an underlying condition, such as heart disease, into a life-threatening malady.
What Are the Signs of Pneumonia in the Elderly?
During the illness, seniors will need support from a caregiver. If a loved one has the flu, watch for these warning signs which could develop into pneumonia:
- Feeling weak or confused
- Green or yellow mucus
- Chest or abdomen pain or pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating and clammy skin
- Loss of appetite, low energy and fatigue
- Dizziness and/or continual vomiting
- A worsening of other medical conditions
How is Pneumonia Treated?
Typical treatment for pneumonia in seniors begins with a phlegm or blood sample to determine whether the individual has viral or bacterial pneumonia. Viral forms usually get treated with bedrest, while bacterial forms can improve with antibiotics.
There are a few special considerations to make when prescribing an antibiotic to a senior. As we age, the ability to metabolize medications changes, and so older adults can become more sensitive to dosage and susceptible to upset stomach. Further, many seniors already take a cocktail of medicines, increasing the risk of potential negative interactions when adding any new medicine. Your parent’s doctor should take these factors into consideration, but it never hurts to do your own research on safe medication management.
To help your parent feel more comfortable, you can give him or her over-the-counter medicines for fever and chills. Exercise caution with cough medicines, however, as coughing helps expel mucus to rid the lungs of the infection. You don’t want to suppress coughing entirely, but if it’s keeping your parent up at night, you can get a cough suppressant prescription.
Treating Pneumonia at Home
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to treat a loved one at home to promote recovery. Here are some tips for taking care of a loved one with pneumonia at home:
- Give your loved one plenty of fluids and make sure he or she rests, saving strength for recovery. Fluids help loosen secretions so that the patient can bring up phlegm.
- Try to get your loved one to eat something that will build up his or her strength, such as lentil or chicken soup.
- Don’t let your loved one do any chores until he or she is stronger.
- Give your loved one aspirin or acetaminophen to control any fever.
- Wash your hands before preparing your loved one’s food or touching him or her.
- Make sure no visitors have colds or coughs.
- Try propping your parent up in bed to see if that helps his or her breathing.
If your pneumonia becomes so severe that you are treated in a hospital, you may receive fluids and antibiotics in your veins, oxygen therapy and possibly breathing treatments.
You’re more likely to be treated at a hospital if you:
- Have another serious medical problem
- Have severe symptoms
- Are unable to care for yourself at home, or are unable to eat or drink
- Are older than 65 or a young child
- Have been taking antibiotics at home and are not getting better
Are There Any Common Pneumonia Complications?
It’s important to monitor for a worsening condition as it may indicate these complications:
- Bacteremia occurs when the infection enters the bloodstream, where it can spread to other organs.
- A lung abscess is a fluid-containing cavity that develops in the lungs.
- Pleurisy develops when the pleura, or membrane that protects the lungs becomes inflamed and swollen. The fluid causing this inflammation can in turn become infected, a condition known as empyema.
- Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a form of respiratory failure that may occur if the lungs become severely injured. If this happens, your doctor will administer a mechanical ventilator and supplemental oxygen.
A healthy young person may lead a normal life within a week of recovery from pneumonia. For middle-aged people, it may be weeks before they regain their usual strength and feeling of well-being. A person recovering from mycoplasma pneumonia may be weak for an extended period of time. Adequate rest is important to maintain progress toward full recovery and to avoid relapse. Don’t rush recovery. If you or a loved one needs in-home support at any stage and/or to assist with recovery, do not hesitate to contact your local BrightStar Care office.
In-Home Pneumonia Care for the Elderly
Nearly 1 in 5 people with pneumonia make costly, stressful return trips to the hospital within the first 30 days of being diagnosed with the condition. Individuals with pneumonia also are at a higher risk of having additional, underlying conditions that can make it more difficult to get better without assistance. Research shows that many of these rehospitalizations are potentially preventable through the use of proactive, team-based care-coordination programs. BrightStar Care is equipped with the expertise and passion to work with patients, families, and physicians to reduce the likelihood of hospital readmissions for individuals with pneumonia.
BrightStar Care can help educate people with pneumonia and their families on the key aspects of the condition and how to monitor symptoms, adhere to a plan of care, take their medication, improve wellness, and stay healthy.
The BrightStar Care Registered Nurse Director of Nursing and team of specially trained Certified Nursing Assistants and Home Health Aides make sure the:
- Patient clearly understands the plan of care from the physician and takes the necessary steps needed to get better
- Family feels confident their loved one can self-manage their condition
- Physician is kept up to date on the patient’s condition and made aware of any circumstances that may require attention
The primary focus to improve the wellness of individuals with pneumonia is to make sure they take their antibiotics and that early signs of decline are addressed promptly. BrightStar Care professional care team members are specially trained to look for and communicate key changes in symptoms to stay ahead of any potentially dangerous changes in an individual’s condition. Learn more about the BrightStar Care approach to Pneumonia Care.
5 Ways to Help Prevent Pneumonia in the Elderly
Pneumonia can originate from bacteria, viruses, or other causes, but regardless of the cause of infection, it is one of the most common ailments in older adults. In fact, those over 65 are more susceptible to pneumonia, and this is due to a variety of reasons, including changes in lung capacity that occur with age, increased exposure to disease in community settings, and the presence of predisposing conditions like cardiopulmonary disease or diabetes.
1. Know the Symptoms of Pneumonia in the Elderly
There are challenges to the diagnosis of pneumonia in seniors because they may not suffer the classic symptoms like fever, chills and cough, according to the Infectious Disease Clinics of North America. Keep an eye out for non respiratory symptoms like weakness, confusion, delirium, or dizziness, or other, more vague symptoms—especially in those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which can impair the accurate reporting of pneumonia symptoms. Also, it may be more difficult to notice pneumonia symptoms in seniors with preexisting conditions, so be alert to any changes in your loved one’s health, and see a doctor if any unusual symptoms occur.
2. Practice Good Hygiene Habits
Ordinary respiratory infections, colds, and influenza can sometimes lead to pneumonia; the Mayo Clinic advises that you wash your hands regularly or use hand sanitizer to help prevent the spread of these illnesses. Other types of infections, like oral or dental infections, can also lead to pneumonia, so good dental hygiene is a must. Lastly, if you want to prevent pneumonia in elderly loved ones, make sure you help them avoid others who are ill, whether it’s routine illnesses like colds, flu, and respiratory infections, or more serious diseases like measles or chickenpox. All of these can lead to pneumonia.
3. Make Sure Seniors Get Immunized
The Mayo Clinic and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute both advise seniors and others at risk for pneumonia to get vaccinated against bacterial pneumococcal pneumonia. It’s a one-time vaccine that can prevent or reduce the severity of pneumonia. Your doctor may also suggest a booster vaccine after 5 years. It’s also a good idea to vaccinate seniors against other illnesses that can lead to pneumonia, particularly influenza.
4. Don’t Smoke
Smoking is a major risk factor for pneumonia—it greatly increases a person’s likelihood of getting the disease, because it harms the ability of the lungs to defend against infection. Quitting smoking can help at-risk seniors defend against pneumonia.
5. Stay in Good General Health
Good overall health habits are critical to preventing pneumonia in seniors and in everybody, because they keep the immune system strong and able to fight off infection. Make sure your loved one follows appropriate nutrition guidelines for seniors, as well as getting plenty of rest and physical exercise.