Pneumonia Risks in Older Adults

Pneumonia is a serious infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, filling with fluid or pus. It usually presents itself with a myriad of symptoms, many of which can be fatal if not treated properly and swiftly. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 250,000 people are hospitalized while 50,000 die of pneumonia each year – and seniors are especially at high risk for complications and death from pneumonia.

Here are a few facts and useful tips to help you or a loved one fight off this serious respiratory infection.

Causes of pneumonia

The Mayo Clinic states the most common pneumonia-causing germs are actually in the air we breathe. Our body can usually fight off these germs from infecting our lungs, but sometimes they can overpower our immune system. The four common types of pneumonia include:

  • Bacteria: the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in the United States is Streptococcus pneumoniae.
  • Bacteria-like organisms: if you have ever had “walking pneumonia,” then you had this specific type of pneumonia, which is formally called Mycoplasma pneumonia. This is a milder form of pneumonia.
  • Fungi: most common in those with weakened immune systems or those with chronic health problems. This form also occurs in people who inhale large doses of organisms.
  • Viruses: we all know what COVID-19 is at this point. That particular virus is known to cause severe pneumonia in older adults, many times proving to be fatal.

Symptoms of pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia can vary based on the type of germ that is causing the infection, your age and your overall health. A mild infection can present itself with the same symptoms as a cold or flu, but lasting longer. Other symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • Confusion or changes in mental awareness (in adults over age 65)
  • Fatigue
  • Cough, with a phlegm
  • Fever, sweating, shaking and chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Lower than normal body temperature (in adults over age 65 and in people with a weakened immune system)

Complications in older adults

There are many treatment options for pneumonia, but some adults may experience complications. The most common complications include:

  • Bacteria in the bloodstream
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fluid accumulation around the lungs
  • Lung abscess

Preventing pneumonia

The number one way to prevent getting pneumonia is to get vaccinated. Talk with your health care provider about your vaccination schedule, as guidelines for the vaccine have changed over time.

Practice good hygiene to protect yourself from respiratory infections which can lead to pneumonia. This includes regular hand washing and using hand sanitizer when soap and water isn’t readily available. Quitting smoking, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet can all help your body fight off infections.

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