What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia in the Elderly is an infection of the lungs. An infection can be caused either bacterially or virally, leading the lungs to fill with pus and harden. The disease can also affect the alveoli, causing them to become inflamed, which can lead to a lack of airflow. The symptoms of pneumonia can be minimal, with mild coughing and breathing difficulties, to severe and life-threatening symptoms.
Individuals with compromised immune systems may be at an increased risk of pneumonia, specifically younger children and the elderly.
What are the Causes of Pneumonia?
Pneumonia can be caused either bacterially or virally. These are a few of the most common causes of pneumonia:
- Bacteria: Bacterial pneumonia is one of the most common types of pneumonia and is caused by an increase of bacteria in the lungs. It is often caused by bacteria that are left over after suffering a cold, or it can be transferred via physical contact or breathing near others with the infection.
- Organisms: Organisms mimic bacteria but tend not to cause significant symptoms.
- Fungi: A fungal infection could also lead to pneumonia and is most common in patients with a compromised immune system.
- Virus: Some viral infections can also lead to pneumonia in seniors. The symptoms tend to be milder, but this is not always the case.
With over 30 types of organisms that can lead to pneumonia, it is not always easy to determine the cause. However, the cause of the majority of elderly patients with pneumonia is bacterially or virally. Elderly patients are at an increased risk of developing pneumococcal bacteria.
It can be useful to know how pneumonia is described. The types of pneumonia are often described by where the individual got the disease. They include:
- Community-acquired: Community-acquired pneumonia is one of the most common types of pneumonia and can occur after you’ve been ill or through contact with others.
- Hospital-acquired: Hospital-acquired pneumonia occurs after a visit to or a stay in the hospital. This type of pneumonia tends to be more severe because it is often antibiotic-resistant, also making it more difficult to treat.
- Healthcare-acquired: Illness from healthcare-acquired pneumonia occurs from a healthcare facility which might have an increase in pneumonia bacteria.
- Aspiration caused: Aspiration caused pneumonia comes from the use of breathing machines, common in the treatment of many lung disorders.
What are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
The symptoms of pneumonia in the elderly will often include:
- Chest pain
- Fever/ chills
- Lower temperature
- Nausea/ vomiting
- Breathing difficulties
- Worsening of cold or flu symptoms
- Chronic coughing
With so many different causes of pneumonia, it is important to keep in mind that symptoms can vary from one elderly person to the next. Additionally, seniors can experience a varying degree of severity of their symptoms, based on the cause, the strain of pneumonia, extent of the disease, and their overall health.
How is Pneumonia Treated?
Fortunately, if pneumonia is identified early enough, treatment options are effective.
Your treatment options might include:
- Medications: Antibiotics might be used to treat the symptoms of pneumonia when it is caused by bacteria. Antiviral medications can also be used when dealing with viral-caused pneumonia. Other medications might include cough suppressants or pain relievers.
- Oxygen: Oxygen therapy might be needed in some cases of pneumonia, especially if the patient is having difficulty breathing.
- Pain relief: Pain relief medications might also be used when patients have a high fever or pain from the inflammation.
- Bed rest: Bacterial medications are not always effective and will do nothing to treat pneumonia caused by a virus. Bed rest and relaxation is an important part of treatment.
Effective diagnosis is important when determining the best treatment option. Your doctor will look at your cause and symptoms to determine the best option.
When to See a Doctor for Pneumonia
It is not always easy to determine when to see a doctor for potential pneumonia symptoms. The symptoms of pneumonia often mimic that of the cold or flu, so many individuals may wait to seek medical care.
However, if you are over the age of 65, it is a good idea to seek medical care at the first sign of symptoms.
Other problematic signs that indicate a medical checkup is necessary might include:
- High fever
- Phlegm that is yellow, green, or brown in color
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Feeling disorientated
Additionally, elderly patients who also have co-occurring medical conditions, like congestive heart failure or immune-related diseases, should seek immediate care.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a cold or flu that does not get better, or suddenly get worse, your doctor might choose to run additional tests. During your initial checkup, your doctor will listen to your lungs. Any sounds of rattling can indicate rhonchus or inflammation of the lungs.
- Xray: An X-ray test gives the doctor a clear view of your lungs. When the doctor wants a clearer and detailed view, they might order a CT scan.
- Blood: Blood tests can identify if an infection is present in the body or not. Your doctor will look at your complete blood count (CBC).
- Pulse oximetry test: A pulse oximetry test measures the bodies’ blood oxygen levels.
- Sputum test: A sputum test is a sample of the phlegm in your lungs. This test is completed by collecting a sample after producing a deep cough.
Completing these tests not only allows the doctor to diagnose pneumonia, but they can also identify which treatment is best. In some cases, doctors might also order additional imaging or a pleural fluid culture to assist with the diagnosis, which can help with choosing the right type of antibiotics.
Medications for Pneumonia
Medications are usually a part of treating pneumonia. Certain medications might be used, which include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs like ibuprofen or Aspirin will be used to reduce the inflammation in the lungs. These medications can also be used to reduce fever and discomfort.
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used during the treatment when bacteria are thought to be the cause. Your doctor might try different types of antibiotics, including Penicillin antibiotics like Ampicillin/ Sulbactam, which reduces the growth of bacteria.
- Cough suppressants: Cough suppressants might be used to treat an unproductive cough that is irritating the lining of the lungs. However, it is important to discuss this option with your doctor as coughing is often necessary to loosen up and bring up the infection.
The medications that your doctor prescribes to you will depend on the cause and which symptoms of pneumonia you are experiencing. It is important to follow your doctor’s orders closely. Failing to complete an entire dosage of certain medications, like antibiotics, can lead to antibiotic-resistance.
Pneumonia Risk Factors
While anyone can develop pneumonia, there are additional factors that can make you more at risk. Risk factors might include:
- Age: Children under the age of two and seniors over the age of 65 tend to have a decreased immune system, which prevents their bodies’ from fighting off pneumonia bacteria.
- Living situation: Individuals who are hospitalized for a long period of time or who live in a shared community are at a greater risk of developing pneumonia.
- Medical equipment: Patients who require a breathing ventilator are also at an increased risk of pneumonia.
- Smoking: Smoking reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, making it easier for bacteria and viruses to enter the body. Frequenting environments that contain a lot of smoke or environmental hazards can be dangerous.
- Chronic disease: Individuals dealing with chronic diseases tend to have a weakened immune system.
These risk factors can also increase the severity of the pneumonia disease. Some complications like disorientation, kidney disease, lower blood pressure, dysphagia, and difficulty breathing could lead to inpatient treatment. An increase in complications can also lead to an increase in mortality rates.
While it is not always possible to prevent pneumonia, there are things that you can do to increase the health of your lungs and immune system, which include:
- Vaccination: There are some vaccinations available that will prevent you from getting certain types of pneumonia. Experts recommend that seniors over the age of 65 receive the flu and pneumococcal vaccination. As always, it is important to discuss the potential side effects and uses of the pneumococcal vaccine with your medical doctor.
- Avoid smoking: Smoking reduces the effectiveness of your immune system.
- Hand washing: You can prevent the spread of bacterial pneumonia with frequent hand washing.
- Dental hygiene: Some experts believe that poor dental hygiene can lead to mouth or gum infections, which can then lead to cases of pneumonia.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating healthily, and keeping up with annual exams can protect your immune system, reducing the likelihood of pneumonia in seniors. Maintain a diet that is high in antioxidants and avoid alcohol.
- Avoid others who are ill: Seniors who are susceptible to illnesses should avoid contact with others who are ill. If you must frequent high-risk areas like health clinics or hospitals, wear a protective face mask and practice good hygiene like frequent hand washing.
Also, while you might not be able to prevent pneumonia, you can follow all treatment recommendations to prevent complications such as:
- Bacteremia: Bacteremia is an infection of the bloodstream. Failing to treat the bacteria in the lungs can cause a bacterial infection to spread.
- Pleurisy or Empyema: Pleurisy or empyema occurs when the pneumococcal disease is left untreated.
- Lung abscess: A lung abscess occurs when parts of the lungs develop pus-filled sacs that can make it difficult to breathe.
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS): With ARDS, the lungs are significantly damaged from pneumonia. Acute respiratory distress syndrome often requires additional treatment.
Pneumonia in seniors is more likely to lead to complications. Complications of pneumonia can be life-threatening, increasing mortality rates in seniors.
Special Concerns for Elderly Patient
Elderly patients tend to be at an increased risk of developing pneumonia. In addition to a suppressed immune system, they tend to spend a lot of time in environments that can contain the pneumococcal bacteria, like doctor’s offices or hospitals. Additionally, there are types of pneumonia that can come directly from breathing machines.
Seniors who live in a long-term care facility may also be at an increased risk of the illness. They are more likely to be exposed to medication-resistant bacteria, making it more difficult to find an effective antibiotic. Seniors are also at an increased risk of complications.
Many seniors are also dealing with co-occurring health conditions, which can either increase the chances of developing pneumonia or exacerbate symptoms. Seniors dealing with other conditions like diabetes, HIV, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and Alzheimer’s disease tend to be more likely to develop pneumonia.
The symptoms of pneumonia can also lead to other health complications in elderly patients. General fatigue can lead seniors to feel disorientated and unstable, which can lead to dangerous falls. A decrease in appetite can lead to malnourishment or dehydration. Some patients may also experience dysphagia, difficulty with swallowing.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
The most effective treatment occurs when a patient is involved in their care. You can learn more about your pneumonia diagnosis and treatment options by asking the following questions:
- What type of pneumonia do I have?
- Are additional tests needed?
- What are my treatment options?
- What do you suspect caused pneumonia?
- What lifestyle changes should I make?
- What medications can I take?
- Is the pneumococcal vaccine safe for me?
- What risk factors should I be aware of?
The treatment of pneumonia can take many weeks, or even months, for a full recovery. You can manage your pneumonia symptoms in the following ways:
- Routine visits with doctor: It is important to continue to monitor your progress with your medical doctor. Your doctor might want to continue with ongoing tests and chest radiographs to ensure the antibiotics and treatment plan is working.
- Follow all doctors’ orders: Spending time recovering in the hospital or on bedrest might feel inconvenient, but it might be an important part of your treatment plan. Always listen to your doctor’s recommendations.
- Warm steam: Warm steam and hot beverages can help to loosen the phlegm in the lungs.
- Fluid intake: Fluid intake is not only important in preventing dehydration in seniors, but also in loosening up the phlegm in the lungs.
- Avoid smoke: While avoiding smoke is important in preventing pneumonia in seniors, it is especially crucial while you are recovering from pneumonia.
- Rest: Your doctor might recommend that you deviate from your normal schedule until you’re healed.
Monitoring your pneumonia symptoms and following your doctor’s orders is crucial when managing the symptoms of pneumonia.
How Do You Live With Pneumonia?
With early diagnosis and treatment, you can overcome the symptoms of pneumonia. You can practice a healthy lifestyle with exercise and frequent medical checkups to prevent pneumonia. By being aware of the most common symptoms of pneumonia and visiting with your medical doctor when you have concerns, you can begin to treat the signs of pneumonia as soon as possible.
You can also work on improving your immune system to better fight off and recover from pneumonia. Only take antibiotics when they are prescribed by your doctor and always follow the full dosage.
Look out for symptoms of pneumonia and schedule an appointment with your doctor or seek emergency care, when needed, when you have any concerns. Left untreated, pneumonia can lead to permanent damage to the lungs and fatality, with higher mortality rates in seniors.
It is also important to keep up with the monitoring and care of other medical conditions. Keep up-to-date on your annual exam and be actively involved in the treatment of each condition.
How to Help Your Loved One Post Pneumonia
Treatment of the symptoms of pneumonia can take a long time, especially in elderly patients. You can assist your loved one post pneumonia in a few ways.
You can help a loved one by encouraging them to seek medical care when they are not feeling well. Many seniors may not visit a doctor until their symptoms have gotten worse. Treatment of pneumonia also requires frequent medical checkups and adherence to all medication instructions. Some elderly patients may feel confused or disorientated when following these rules, especially when they are not feeling well. You can further help them by filling and organizing their medications.
Some seniors will require treatment in a hospital setting. You can help them by visiting them and handling all household tasks when they are away from home. You can also help with the prevention of pneumonia in seniors. Encourage them to talk to their doctor about available vaccines.
If you are feeling under the weather, it can also be helpful to avoid contact with your loved one. While you might feel bad not visiting them, the potential spread of pneumonia bacteria or a virus can be bad for their health, especially if they are dealing with other medical concerns or have a compromised immune system.
Fortunately, many seniors will find that their health insurance covers the diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia. However, if you are not currently covered, the ongoing medical care and testing that is needed to treat pneumonia can get costly if paying yourself.
Seniors will also find that common healthcare coverages like Medicare will also include pneumonia vaccinations. Some insurance providers will also cover other vaccines, like for the flu.
For More Information Contact
For more information about pneumonia, check out these websites:
- Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology
- American Lung Association
- American Thoracic Society
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
More Information to Know About Pneumonia
It can be useful to know the types of bacteria
Types of bacteria include:
- Streptococcus pneumonia: Streptococcus pneumonia is the most common type of strain of pneumonia.
- Gram-negative bacilli: Gram-negative bacteria occur when the bacteria do not show up gram or staining tests.
- Viral pneumonia: Viral pneumonia is caused by a viral infection. Numerous types of viruses can lead to viral pneumonia.
- Mycoplasma pneumonia: Mycoplasma pneumonia is a type of atypical bacterial that can lead to pneumonia. The symptoms with this type of illness tend to be mild and have led to it being referred to as walking pneumonia. The individual might have some symptoms, but might not necessarily even know that they have pneumonia.
There are other types of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and infections that can lead to a diagnosis of pneumonia. Understanding the different types will assist your doctor in choosing the most effective treatment plan.
While pneumonia affects individuals regardless of their age, seniors are at an increased risk of developing the disease. Unfortunately, they are also at a higher risk of having complications due to pneumonia.
By understanding the risk factors and symptoms of pneumonia, you can receive medical treatment faster. With the right treatment and careful monitoring, pneumonia can be treatable.