Elderly Pneumonia A Serious Concern
Elderly pneumonia is a serious concern due to seniors’ increased risks and the condition’s high fatality rate among all age groups. This lung infection, caused by various bacteria, viruses, and fungi, was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States according to 2010 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 20 adults who contract pneumonia die from it. Pneumonia affects one or both lungs, causing inflammation and filling the lungs with fluid. It also decreasing blood flow to infected sites, thus decreasing oxygen levels in blood with it. Resulting complications affect the entire body, from kidney failure to low blood pressure to bacteremia (a potentially fatal bloodstream infection).
Seniors are at increased risk of pneumonia and its complications for a number of reasons. For starters, aging generally causes a decline in immune systems that would otherwise fight off infecting agents –especially if individuals’ medical histories include chemotherapy, certain medications are taken over extended periods, or bone marrow or organ transplants. Lungs also increasingly lose the ability to easily clear secretions containing infecting agents. Furthermore, seniors often contract pneumonia due to comorbidity with other conditions –such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis, HIV, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Surgery sometimes exposes seniors to infection, and heart disease often worsens complications.
Pneumonia is one of the most common illnesses that older adults contract, with an estimated 60% of people over 65 having received treatment for the condition in hospitals. Thankfully, this fact also means that the causes and risk factors of pneumonia are well-understood. There are several precautions you can take to protect yourself from pneumonia and/or recover more easily from its resulting complications. This article will explain how to recognize the signs of pneumonia, prevent infection whenever possible, and receive treatment according to particular forms of pneumonia.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
People of all ages frequently mistake pneumonia symptoms for cold or flu, especially since pneumonia is often a secondary infection to these conditions. Additionally, seniors are likely to experience different symptoms than the general population; instead of the high fever that typically characterizes pneumonia, they might experience dizziness, loss of appetite, lethargy, and other generalized symptoms. Seniors with dementia have particular difficulties telling caregivers what they are experiencing. In general, however, pneumonia symptoms typically include chest pains, malaise, chills, fever, yellow or green sputum, cough, confusion, and shortness of breath. The exact symptoms present depend on the type of strain –streptococcus bacteria is more common and fatal in seniors than the general population, viral infections are the most common in the general population, and other strains (such as fungi) are rare but severe.
Doctors can diagnose pneumonia through various simple tests. Infected and inflamed lungs make sounds called rales and rhoncus, which listening can detect. Physicians can determine if the blood’s oxygen levels are too low through pulse oximetry tests. Ultimately, doctors typically diagnose patients based on CT scans or chest x-rays –which help identify the location and severity of the infection. Testing blood and phlegm samples can also determine the cause of the strain and how to treat patients accordingly.
Besides physical decline from aging and frequent comorbidity with exacerbating conditions, seniors may have various other risk factors for pneumonia. Smoking greatly increases one’s risk, as it damages lungs beyond the point of easily fighting infection; seniors benefit from an environment where they do not smoke or experience secondhand smoke. Seniors may contract especially dangerous pneumonia from surgical wounds and ventilators, as hospitals may have antibiotic-resistant strains hard to fight off in such a weakened state; while doctors have their own precautions, caregivers can do their part by verifying the facility is clean and having all visitors wash their hands. Since older adults may have difficulty coughing for various reasons, caregivers should make sure that they do not inhale food, liquid, or other contaminants with pneumococcal bacteria. The next section of this article will explain other prevention and treatment measures.
Prevention and Treatment
Thankfully, there are many precautions you can take to avoid contracting pneumonia. Pneumococcal vaccines prevent 23 different strains of pneumococcal bacteria; since its effects may not last as long in older people, doctors recommend receiving the vaccination once in your 50s, again at 65, and yet again every five years afterward. Annual flu shots can also help you avoid contracting pneumonia while your immune system is vulnerably fighting influenza. Basic health precautions also apply; good nutrition, exercise, and rest can strengthen your immune system. Vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E are especially helpful. Dental hygiene and handwashing can prevent you from contacting pneumonia from infected teeth or contact with the cold or flu.
Pneumonia patients receive treatment based on the cause of their infection, and most heal at home. While some receive antiviral medications for viral infections, these typically heal on their own with healthy eating, hydration, and rest. If the condition worsens, it may have become bacterial pneumonia –treated with antibiotics, according to where the patient contracted the illness. It is important for patients to finish their prescribed rounds of antibiotics to decrease the risk of antibiotic resistance; this is true for bacterial infections and those caused by mycoplasma, chlamydia, and other organisms. Additionally, caregivers should make sure they maintain good hygiene, hydration, and eating habits. Some may need oxygen therapy to increase their blood oxygen, and –although coughing helps clear up the infection– some may require low-dose cough suppressants in order to sleep properly.
While pneumonia is often dangerous, it involves many of the same treatment and prevention measures as other conditions. Older people are commonly familiar with general health advice and precautions against colds and flu, which go a long way in preventing pneumonia. Furthermore, healthcare providers increasingly take necessary precautions and discover new treatments to prevent spread in environments outside patients’ control; rates of antibiotic resistance have reportedly declined after an initial increase. Taking these precautions before and after infection will improve your health and comfort not only against pneumonia but also holistically.
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