Pneumonia is a serious infection which hospitalizes many Canadian seniors each year, and has a devastatingly high mortality rate. It’s especially contagious for those above the age of 65, and according to the IDSA, around 1 in every 5 seniors who contract the disease will die from it. Even when placed in a hospital ICU unit, the mortality rate for seniors with pneumonia can be as high as 25%.
Pneumonia in the elderly is more serious than in younger adults, because it’s often linked to further complications that result in longer recovery time and hospital stays. Read below to find out more about this dangerous infection.
Why is Pneumonia More Common in the Elderly?
Because of how common and deadly this disease can be to those in the later stages of their lives, it may seem as if pneumonia specifically targets seniors. However, there are many reasons for this. Risk factors for pneumonia include:
- Overall Health: Many seniors already suffer from other medical afflictions, meaning they have weakened immune systems and have a harder time fighting off infections;
- Weaker Lungs: Pneumonia is caused by fluid buildup in the lungs, making breathing difficult and leading to violent coughing fits. Older adults generally have more difficulty coughing and clearing their airways, which means the infection can reach their bronchial tubes very easily. Coughing is the body’s natural way of expelling pathogens from the lungs, and without this ability, it becomes much easier to contract infections;
- Comorbid Diseases: Certain conditions, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart diseases, and lung diseases (CF, asthma, COPD, et cetera), which often affect the elderly, are risk factors for pneumonia;
- Chemotherapy or radiation therapy: These cancer treatments can lead to inflammation of the lungs. This is different from the infectious type of pneumonia, but may cause similar long-term health effects. Seniors who have recently undergone cancer treatment are therefore at a higher risk;
- Contagious Settings: Seniors living in long-term care facilities, hospitals, or private residences are at a higher risk of getting infectious diseases. Hospitals and LTCFs are, naturally, a gathering place for ill people, making exposure to pneumonia much more likely. Retirement homes also house many seniors who may be suffering from the disease, leading to the spread of infection- this is referred to as health care-associated pneumonia (HCAP);
- Having an Unclean Living Environment: Many seniors don’t live in the cleanest of spaces, because age, limited mobility, and health problems make it difficult to clean the house regularly. Any affliction of the lungs can lead to fluid buildup (pneumonia). This means if there’s mold, mildew, or other air pollutants in the senior’s home, it may cause breathing issues that develop into pneumonia. This makes proper house & home care an underlooked but fundamental aspect of caring for elderly loved ones.
What are the Symptoms of Pneumonia in Seniors?
Because there are many types of pneumonia (over 30 different strains), symptoms of infection will differ from person to person. Of course, the severity of the disease can also vary. A mild bout of the disease is often called ‘walking pneumonia’, since those affected by it only feel slightly ill and can continue their daily lives without issue. However, this is much less common in the elderly, who usually have severe symptoms, and may need emergency oxygen treatment in the worst of cases.
Common signs of pneumonia in seniors include:
- Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath;
- Harsh coughing fits that produce phlegm;
- Pain in the chest or ribs;
- Pale, clammy skin;
- Confusion, disorientation, and difficulty focusing (this may be hard to distinguish in seniors with dementia)
- Unusual fatigue and feeling weak;
- A high fever, along with sweating, shaking, and chills.
Sometimes, the symptoms may be confused for the flu. Some symptoms may not appear, while others will be apparent. This can make it difficult to identify pneumonia with confidence, but any changes in energy, appetite, behaviour, or breathing should be taken seriously and brought to the attention of a medical professional or caregiver.
Treatment for Pneumonia in Seniors
Treatment will differ depending on the type of pneumonia. Normally, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics, anti-virals, or other medications. However, if the symptoms are severe enough, admittance to the ICU may be required. Emergency treatment may consist of being given a respirator, bronchodilators, fluids, and round-the-clock monitoring for the length of the hospitalization.
When it comes to pneumonia, particularly in seniors, there is no single, 100% successful prevention method. This is because there are many strains of the illness, and it can be caused by other types of upper tract infections.
Luckily, there are steps to reduce the likelihood of catching the disease, such as:
- Getting Vaccinated: All seniors should get a regular influenza (flu) shot once a year, as well as a one-time shot of two different pneumococcal vaccines. The latter protects against twenty-three strains of pneumococcus (pneumonia bacteria). These vaccines are generally 60-80% effective in preventing pneumonia for seniors with healthy immune systems. Discuss with a doctor before getting any shots, in order to avoid allergic reactions and potential side effects.
- Being Hygienic: Taking special care to properly wash one’s hands can be the difference in transmitting diseases or not. Caregivers, family members, and friends should always wash their hands before visiting a senior, and use hand sanitizer when possible. Disinfecting surfaces in the home or residence can help as well.
- Keep Your Immune System Healthy: Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise can all help prevent diseases like pneumonia in the elderly.
Caring for A Senior With Pneumonia
When a senior comes down with any illness, in-home or in-hospital, they will need plenty of time to rest and recover. In this case, having a family member or professional caregiver around is a necessity. A caregiver can provide nursing care by ensuring the intake of prescribed medication, giving the senior cough medicine or pain relievers as needed, making sure they get plenty of sleep, and monitoring any changes in their condition.
If you’d like to learn more about our elderly home care services, please feel free to call or email Complete Care today for a consultation.