Pneumonia is a major cause of mortality among seniors aged 65 and older. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people die each year from pneumonia than from automobile accidents. Despite this fact, many elderly people and their caregivers don't know all the facts about pneumonia, and as a result could be at serious risk.
AgingCare.com spoke with Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation on Infectious Disease and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine about pneumonia's impact on the elderly.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. The disease can range from mild to severe, and in some cases may be fatal. Although pneumonia is contagious, the main way older people get it is from themselves. "All of us carry bacteria in throats and noses. Frail elders often can't clear secretions from their lungs, and those secretions tend to go down into bronchial tubes. The area fills with pus, mucous, and other liquids and cannot function properly. This means oxygen cannot reach the blood and the cells of the body. Complications of pneumonia may include bacterial infection in the bloodstream and fluid and infection around the lungs," Dr. Schaffner explained.
Why are Elderly People at Greater Risk?
Older people are simply more frail than other individuals. A frail elder can't clear secretions from their lungs. Those secretions tend to go down into bronchial tubes causing the infection.
Weakened Immune Systems
Elders tend to have weaker immune systems, and therefore cannot fight off the infection. In addition, a suppressed immune system may be due to an organ or bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy (treatment for cancer), or long-term steroid use.
Senior Health Conditions
Seniors may have other ailments – such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, chemotherapy or HIV – which put them at a higher risk for pneumonia. If a person has a lung condition such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), bronchiectasis, he or she is at greater risk of contracting pneumonia.
Seniors who have surgery are susceptible. Elders who are experiencing pain, or being given pain medication, tend to take shallow breaths, which results in mucus gathering in the lungs.
Signs of Pneumonia to Look For
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Green or yellow sputum that comes up when coughing
- Feeling lethargic
- Have had a recent cold or flu and suddenly feel worse
Treatments for Pneumonia
A doctor will determine if your parent has pneumonia using chest X-rays and a blood test. Bacterial pneumonia is typically treated with antibiotics. If the infection is viral, the doctor will treat it with an anti-viral medicine. Make sure your parent takes antibiotics as the doctor prescribes.
Your parent may start to feel better before finishing the medicine, but they should continue taking it as prescribed. If they stop too soon, the pneumonia may come back. Doctors may also give the patient fluids if they are dehydrated, oxygen if they are having trouble breathing, as well as provide pain relief and medical support.
"Milder cases of pneumonia can be cared for at home, but the more severe the case – and depending on whether your parent has other underlying health conditions - hospitalization may be required," Dr. Schaffner says. Caregivers can help their elderly parents by ensuring they have an adequate intake of fluids and a healthy diet.
Flu predisposes elderly people to pneumonia, so the number of pneumonia cases tend to spike during flu season -- but the illness can occur at any time throughout the year. Dr. Schaffner recommends that all people over age 65 get an annual flu shot, as well as a pneumococcal vaccine, a one-time shot that protects against the pneumococcus, or pneumonia bacteria.
Caregivers should also be vaccinated, to avoid getting sick themselves and passing the illness to their elderly parents.
"The CDC recommends that anyone who has prolonged contact with an elderly person should get vaccinated," Dr. Schaffner says. He also recommends that caregivers educate themselves on pneumonia, which provides peace of mind that they are doing as much as they can to prevent their elderly parent from getting pneumonia.
Regular exercise is also key to keeping seniors healthy, he says.
Dr. William Schaffner is Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Professor of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee and President-Elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.