GeriatricsPublic Health

Dangers of Pneumonia for the Elderly

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Pneumonia is a serious inflammation and infection of the lungs that is responsible for over 50,000 deaths annually, making it one of the leading causes of mortality in the United States. Seniors age 65 and older are at increased risk for developing pneumonia. In fact, older adults accounted for 60% of pneumonia-related hospital discharges in 2005 alone.

During the winter months, the elderly are at heightened risk for contracting influenza. If severe or improperly treated, the flu can quickly progress into pneumonia. With flu season now hitting its height, knowing the warning signs that signal complications from pneumonia is of critical importance. Since pneumonia symptoms may also closely mimic that of a common cold or influenza, its important to be able to distinguish between the sicknesses in order to discern when more serious treatment is needed.

Why are elderly persons more vulnerable to pneumonia?

Because the immune system weakens with age, seniors have a harder time warding off illness and therefore contract pneumonia more easily. Although the infection is localized within the lungs, pneumonia causes the body to decrease blood flow to other organs, which can result in life-threatening complications including kidney failure and sepsis.

For those with multiple chronic conditions, the risk of complications from pneumonia increases. Those with co-morbid conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, and COPD are more susceptible and have weaker defenses.

The medical community also suggests that signs of pneumonia in seniors differ from the rest of the adult population, which sometimes results in delayed diagnosis and more severe illness. Older adults may have no fever and may exhibit non-specific symptoms such as sleepiness, lethargy, and loss of appetite that do not automatically “scream” of a pneumonia diagnosis. Those with significant memory loss and dementia can also may problems communicating their symptoms, which also delays treatment.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia among older adults?

A change in cognitive status (delirium, confusion, dementia) is a major sign of pneumonia in the elderly. Other warning signs include:

  • Pain in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Shaking chills
  • High fever
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • “Dusty” or purplish skin (a result of inadequate blood oxygen supply)
  • Clammy skin that is cool to the touch

What can be done to prevent pneumonia in seniors?

If your aging parent contracts the flu, make sure he or she receives plenty of rest, fluids, and adequate amounts of nutrition to sustain recovery. Remind all caregivers in the home to follow strict hand washing procedures to decrease the spread of infection.

Physicians and the CDC also recommend a one-time pneumonia vaccine against streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (pneumococcus) for everyone age 65 and older.


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