The elderly are at higher risk of contracting pneumonia than other age groups. Medical associations believe this is due to their immune systems becoming weaker with age.
Pneumonia in the elderly tends to progress quickly and needs to be identified and treated as soon as possible.
Learn how to identify the symptoms and different types of this lung infection here, and protect your loved ones.
How Does Pneumonia Start in the Elderly?
Pneumonia causes the air sacs or alveoli in one’s lungs to become inflamed, hindering lung function.
This infection can occur in either one or both lungs. The lungs may also be filled with pus, causing chest pain and coughing.
There are many symptoms of pneumonia that older adults can come down with. Here are a few of the common symptoms across age groups:
- Chest pain
- A wet or productive cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Crackling sounds while inhaling
- Pleural effusion, which is an excess of fluid within the lungs
- Feelings of physical weakness and fatigue
Elderly adults have a few unique symptoms of pneumonia that make this infection more difficult to diagnose, such as:
- Disorientation and altered mental awareness
- A normal temperature or a low-grade fever common in older adults
Note that these symptoms can be further worsened if one is suffering from any chronic underlying lung diseases.
Is Pneumonia Common in the Elderly?
The 2 populations at greatest risk of developing this infection are young children and the elderly. However, older adults are more likely to develop pneumonia than other age groups.
This is because their immune systems weaken as they get older. Extra care must be taken when treating this infection in the elderly, as they risk the disease progressing.
Other organs can affect one’s chances of getting pneumonia as well. High blood pressure can lead to hardened arteries and strokes. Seniors with heart disease are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia.
An older adult who’s recently undergone an organ transplant typically has a weakened immune system. This gives them a higher risk of contracting pneumonia.
Smoking will also worsen the symptoms of pneumonia, as it weakens the immune system and further reduces the body’s ability to transport oxygen.
Types of Pneumonia in the Elderly
Pneumonia in older adults can come in many forms. Here are a few of them, and briefly explain how they’re acquired.
It’s possible to pick up a case of this respiratory infection when your loved one is sent to the hospital for different health problems.
Senior citizens with weaker immune systems have an increased risk of getting pneumonia from the hospital. This type of pneumonia is also common in long-term care facilities.
“Community-acquired pneumonia” refers to any type of pneumonia picked up outside a hospital setting.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, this is one of the most common types of pneumonia in adults. However, do note that this isn’t usually severe.
However, this type of community-acquired pneumonia can follow viruses such as the flu or COVID-19, which means they will typically affect already-weakened individuals.
Avoid viral pneumonia by getting a flu shot and washing your hands regularly. It spreads through sneezes and coughs that the mouth and nose can inhale.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting 1 dose of the PPSV23 vaccine for older adults with underlying medical conditions.
A second shot may be administered to particularly high-risk patients. If your loved one has never had a pneumococcal vaccine, they will be given the PVC15 vaccine instead.
This infection is often found in older adults with pre-existing long-term health issues.
It’s noncontagious and is picked up via inhaling large amounts of spores found near soil and bird droppings. It’s most commonly caused by the Aspergillus, Cryptococcus, and Pneumocystis fungi.
Also known as pneumococcal pneumonia, this type is extremely common and most often caused by the Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria. This type can occur following the flu or cough.
If your loved one is experiencing milder symptoms, they may have this type of community-acquired pneumonia.
Its name comes from its weaker symptoms, which often won’t progress into anything greater.
However, this disease may lead to other negative health conditions, so remember to take all forms of pneumonia in older adults seriously.
This type of pneumonia crops up when senior citizens inhale anything that isn’t air into their lungs.
This can include food, vomit, saliva, and other liquids. Contracting this becomes more probable for senior citizens who have a swallowing problem.
Stages of Pneumonia in the Elderly
Though this disease is often mild, it’s more likely to be severe in senior citizens. This is because of age, which comes with a weaker immune system.
- FIRST STAGE: First, senior citizens will experience mild physical symptoms like chest pains and a mild fever.
- SECOND STAGE: Next, the symptoms will persist and may even worsen over time. The new symptoms may include breathing difficulties and bluish fingernails and lips.
- THIRD STAGE: After a week has passed and your loved one’s condition has not improved, they will need to be hospitalized. This stage involves harsher symptoms like lung damage, blood being expelled through coughing, and further difficulty breathing.
- FOURTH STAGE: In this stage, your loved one should see signs of improvement. Their fever should clear up along with their chest pains.
It’s common for a cough to remain as the body expels the excess fluids from the lungs. If no improvements occur, your loved one may need mechanical ventilation.
Contracting and treating this infection can lead to many complications. Here are a few of them:
1. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
This is directly caused by severe cases of pneumonia and can lead to chronic health problems in the future.
Suffering from ARDS will lead to lifelong issues like physical weakness and impaired cognitive functions, resulting in a lower quality of life.
2. Lung Abscess
This complication is defined by a space in the lungs filling up with pus and is caused by bacterial pneumonia.
It will become a chronic disease if it persists for more than 2 months.
Organ failure is a possible side effect of a lung abscess, as the infection moves from the lungs to other organs.
This life-threatening condition is likely to occur if the patient has a weakened immune system.
Sepsis is a chain response to another infection that causes the body to damage itself.
It shares some symptoms with pneumonia, such as chills and physical weakness and must be treated with antibiotics quickly. Otherwise, the patient will risk falling into septic shock.
Elderly Pneumonia Survival Rate
Older adults’ pneumonia can quickly become a life-threatening issue and further compound the patient’s chronic health conditions.
This infection has a survival rate of about 70% in the elderly. The survival rate will depend on the patient’s age and any health conditions they have alongside the infection.
Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that elderly adults are more likely to be vaccinated against the flu. This lowers their chances of contracting this infection.
Elderly Pneumonia Diagnosis and Prognosis
A proper pneumonia diagnosis will require a few things from you. The doctor will typically request the following tests and information:
- Whether you have any existing health conditions
- If you’ve recently had your pneumococcal vaccines
- The oxygen level of your blood, along with the type of infection you have
- A chest X-ray to identify the location of the infection
You should also expect your doctor to test you for COVID-19 with an RT-PCR test. Since the symptoms of pneumonia match those of COVID-19, a proper diagnosis must differentiate between the two.
There is a chance your recovery period will take longer than expected. In this case, your doctor may ask for an additional CT scan for a better look at the condition of your lungs.
If untreated, pneumonia in older adults can lead to ARDS, sepsis, or death. Mortality is a greater risk for senior citizens with this condition.
Elderly patients will ordinarily require a hospital stay and supplemental oxygen, which will improve their chances of recovery and reduce their need to rely on mechanical ventilation.
How to Prevent Pneumonia in the Elderly
Before experiencing any symptoms of pneumonia, it is possible to tackle the risk factors that could lead to this infection.
Several underlying health conditions are risk factors. Taking care of your overall health is important to lower your risk of contracting this disease.
A healthy lifestyle can reduce the impact of any pneumonia symptoms and, more importantly, reduce your chances of picking up this respiratory infection in the first place.
This includes staying physically active, eating a nutritious diet, and sleeping regularly. If you are a smoker, quit smoking to boost your body’s defenses and lung health.
Clean your hands frequently with soap and water or 70% Isopropyl alcohol to protect yourself from this bacterial infection.
Once you start seeing any symptoms of this disease in your elderly family, head to a doctor for a diagnosis.
Treatment for Pneumonia in the Elderly
If preventing pneumonia is no longer an option, you and your doctor must move toward treatment.
To properly treat pneumonia in older adults, the wellness professionals in charge of your care will first properly identify what kind of pneumonia you have.
Treating Bacterial Pneumonia
If you’ve contracted bacterial pneumonia, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. The specific antibiotic will differ depending on which bacteria is causing the disease.
Ensure that you rest well and take in lots of fluids. Do not take an improved condition as a sign to stop taking your medicine.
Taking an incomplete dose of your antibiotics may result in the bacteria causing your pneumonia to gain resistance to the medicine.
Do not treat your infection with cough medicine unless your doctor prescribes it. Milder cases of pneumonia may only require bed rest and consistent fluid intake.
Children younger than 2 will be given a pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia. Older adults who have contracted bacterial pneumonia also need a flu vaccine.
Treating Aspiration Pneumonia
Treatment for this type will require antibiotics, similar to the bacterial type. Severe cases will require the patient to be placed on mechanical ventilation.
The most crucial part of treating this type of pneumonia will be preventing further aspiration from occurring.
Eating slowly and avoiding distractions like the TV or other devices when consuming meals will help. Maintaining proper posture if seated and using a wedge pillow if you’re bedridden is also good.
Treating Viral Pneumonia
However, antibiotics will not help if you have viral pneumonia. This community-acquired pneumonia must be treated with antiviral drugs like Tamiflu or Rapivab.
If your pneumonia has progressed to respiratory failure, you may be treated via oxygen therapy. Your care will also shift more toward support.
Elderly Pneumonia Recovery Time
The recovery period from pneumonia will depend on the patient’s age, the disease’s severity, and the infection’s cause.
Expect your loved one to recover for around 6-8 weeks before they’re well enough to leave the hospital.
Early treatment will shorten their stay and improve their chances of recovery.
Signs That Pneumonia Is Improving
As the disease continues, your loved one’s symptoms should subside and eventually disappear. Here are some general milestones for recovery time.
- One week: Their fever should subside.
- One month: They should be coughing up less mucus and have lessened chest pains, and the cough should be practically gone after 6 weeks.
- Three months: Most symptoms should have subsided, but lingering fatigue may occur.
- Six months: Your loved one should be back to regular health at this point.
Post-Recovery Health Tips
To prevent this disease from cropping up again, follow these tips:
- Quit Smoking/Stay Away From Smokers: Ask those smoking seniors in your life to quit after their recovery.
- Slowly Get Active Again: Pneumonia will weaken your lungs, but you can bring them back to capacity through light and regular physical activity.
Pneumonia can occur either through infection or by accident, regardless of your overall health.However, keeping your loved ones in good shape will reduce their chances of contracting this infection.