20Oct2017

Battling Pneumonia in the Elderly

By Lucy Wyndham, Caregiver Connection

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Pneumonia among seniors may be common, but it can have severe consequences, causing almost 51,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. The illness is a particularly big worry among the elderly, because this group can have a weakened immune system and other differences that make them more susceptible to contagion. In this post, we discuss the causes and signs of pneumonia in the elderly, and discover how to prevent it through specific measures, including staying connected to vital information, vaccination, and lifestyle changes.

The Nature of Pneumonia - Types, Causes and Symptoms

Pneumonia is a term used to describe a category of lung infections which may be caused by bacteria or by viruses. Symptoms vary from person to person but they can include a high fever, rapid breathing, headache, lethargy, a sharp stabbing pain when inhaling oxygen, chills and sweating. Less common symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Bacterial pneumonia tends to present more severe and longer-lasting symptoms though both types of pneumonia require diagnosis and treatment. Additional, less common types of pneumonia include bronchial pneumonia (involving inflammation of the bronchi), lobar pneumonia (in which one or more of lobes become inflamed) and double pneumonia (when infection is present in both lungs).

Why are Seniors at a Higher Risk of Pneumonia?

Elderly persons in nursing homes are particularly susceptible to pneumonia because they can have impaired immune systems owing to their age (the risk can increase if they are recovering from surgery). Contributing factors also include chronic obstructive lung diseases, use of a nasogastric tube, and dysphagia (having difficulty swallowing). Because immune systems can be weaker in the elderly, it can be easier for pneumonia to spread within a care setting. Another important reason why the elderly are so susceptible to lung infections is the physiological changes they undergo - for instance, the lungs lose elasticity and the strength of respiratory muscles decline. The cough reflex, too, is weaker in this group.

What Strategies Should be Taken?

Carers and family members should be aware of the symptoms of pneumonia, so that elderly patients can receive a diagnosis and treatment immediately. Usually, diagnosis will involve a blood test, CAT scan and sometimes, additional tests. Doctors need to determine whether the infection has a viral or bacterial source, in order to administer the appropriate medication. Sometimes, hospitalization is necessary - this is especially true when oxygen levels are so low that patients require the use of oxygen machines and intravenous medication. Information is also key; many people aged 60+ are embracing the Internet age, opening social media pages to keep up with friends who live far away, and using the Internet as a research tool. Nursing homes with computer facilities should encourage residents to gain information on pneumonia and other illnesses they may be more prone to, so they can take preventive measures.

In the case of pneumonia, prevention is certainly better than cure. Seniors should get the yearly pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine, and practice strict hygiene on a daily basis - this means washing hands frequently, especially after using the restroom and before eating. Finally, they should refrain from smoking, which significantly increases their pneumonia risk.

Pneumonia is a serious, life-threatening infection which affects those with weakened immune systems strongly. Families and health professionals therefore need to be on the alert for possible symptoms, ensure their loved ones receive the pneumonia vaccine, and encourage the adoption of healthy habits, to keep it at bay.

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