Pneumonia can be a mild to severe condition which may affect a person’s mental, physical and lifestyle wellbeing. Elderly people are especially prone to suffering from pneumonia and its short and long term consequences. In this guide for CDPAP caregivers, we will go over what pneumonia is, what the symptoms are, how to prevent it, and more.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli. The alveoli may fill with fluid or pus, making it difficult for oxygen to flow through the bloodstream. Pneumonia can occur in people of all ages, although it is more common in the elderly.
There are different ways to help prevent pneumonia including vaccines and healthy lifestyle choices. In the following portions of this guide, we will consider what the symptoms of pneumonia are, what effects it has specifically on the elderly, and how it can be treated.
Can Pneumonia Affect Both Lungs?
According to the United States National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute pneumonia can affect one or both of the lungs of a person. If pneumonia occurs in both of the lungs, it is called double pneumonia in the United States.
What Causes Pneumonia in Elderly Adults?
In the United States, pneumonia in the elderly is usually caused by bacteria or a virus in the air we breathe. Although our bodies are generally able to prevent the bacteria or virus from infecting the lungs, there are some cases in which the immune system is not strong enough, and this is when pneumonia develops.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, there are a variety of ways that someone may develop pneumonia. These can be categorized by the environment in which the virus was caught as well as the forms of pneumonia.
Environments Causing Pneumonia
Depending on the kind of place in which the patient caught pneumonia, the pneumonia may be categorized differently. Most of the time it is community-acquired pneumonia, meaning that it “occurs outside of hospitals or other healthcare facilities.” The flu, COVID-19, or fungi are examples of causes of pneumonia transmitted between people or the environment.
Hospital-acquired pneumonia is when the person is already hospitalized and catches it during their stay at the hospital. This can be especially dangerous because of the resistance the bacteria may have already developed. People who require ventilators are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia.
Other categorizations include health care-acquired pneumonia, which is “a bacterial infection that occurs in people who live in long-term care facilities or who receive care in outpatient clinics,” and aspiration pneumonia, which is caused when “you inhale food, drink, vomit or saliva into your lungs.”
What are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
There are many different symptoms of pneumonia which are important to look out for. These symptoms can vary in severity. Different symptoms of pneumonia may include:
● High fever
● Coughing with Phlegm (mucus)
● Shortness of breath
● Chest pain when breathing or coughing
● Lack of Appetite
● Confusion or Delirium
Other symptoms may include:
● Low blood pressure
● Rapid heart beat
These may indicate, but do not by themselves diagnose, the presence of pneumonia in a person. These symptoms may also be caused by other factors or diseases. That being said, if someone is experiencing several of these symptoms, it is important that they get in touch with a medical professional immediately to identify the cause.
Who is at Risk for Pneumonia?
Knowing whether someone is at risk for pneumonia is important to be able to better identify its development if ever it occurs in the person. It is also important to know whether someone is at risk in order to take necessary measures to prevent as much as possible its growth. People at risk for pneumonia include:
● Adults of 65 years and older
● Babies and infants
● People with weak immune systems
● Patients recovering from surgery
● Drug users
● People with other respiratory conditions or viral infections
Other causes which may lead to higher risk of developing and suffering from pneumonia include:
● People who have suffered from a brain disorder
● People who suffer from HIV/AIDs
● Lung diseases
● Liver or kidney disease
How Serious is Pneumonia in Older Adults?
Pneumonia is most common in infants and the elderly, meaning anyone over 65 years of age. Elderly people are not only more at risk of developing pneumonia, they are also more susceptible to being hospitalized, suffering from complications, and dying due to pneumonia.
Pneumonia is the second leading cause for hospitalization of Medicare beneficiaries, and most of the people who die from pneumonia each year are elderly adults, according to the American Lung Association (ALA)
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), adults over 65 years of age are ten times more likely to get hospitalized due to pneumonia than adults between 18 and 49 years of age.
Can Pneumonia be Diagnosed?
In most cases, pneumonia is diagnosed by a medical professional observing or identifying symptoms which may indicate the development of the infection. There are also other ways to test the presence of pneumonia, including blood samples, nasal or throat swaps, or urine or mucus samples, according to HealthDirect.
How is Pneumonia Treated?
The goal is to eliminate the infection, prevent any complications, and treat symptoms to help your aging loved one feel better.
Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics
If your aging relative’s pneumonia is from a virus, the doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. However, in some cases, rest and treatment to help relieve symptoms is all that’s needed.
Complications of Pneumonia in Elderly Adults
Pneumonia may cause other complications including:
According to Fairview Health Services, bacteremia is “a bacterial infection that has spread to the bloodstream.” Pneumonia with bacteremia is considered an invasive disease. Pneumonia with bacteremia has a general fatality rate of 5-7% which is much higher for elderly people.
According to the United Kingdom National Health Services, pleurisy is an “inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and ribcage (pleura).” The most notable symptom of pleurisy is sharp chest pain, and in some cases, shoulder pain. Pneumonia can be a cause of pleurisy.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a very dangerous and life-threatening condition which can be caused by an infection such as pneumonia. ARDS is the result of severe inflammation of the lungs, which “causes fluid from nearby blood vessels to leak into the tiny air sacs in your lungs,” which in turn makes breathing extremely difficult.
There is no specific treatment for ARDS, and many people who catch it do not survive the condition. That being said, treating pneumonia, or whatever infection that may cause it, is the first step to preventing ARDS from arising. If a person develops ARDS, they will have to go to the intensive care unit and be hooked onto a ventilator to facilitate their breathing.
ARDS is a severe condition which has a high fatality rate – around 30% according to the NHS – and can incur long lasting consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, breathing problems, memory issues, and general fatigue.
Preventing Pneumonia in Older Adults
The best way to reduce the risk of developing pneumonia is by following easy prevention steps in a person’s life. Some of the best ways to prevent pneumonia, which is especially common and dangerous in older populations, is by getting vaccinated, practicing good hygiene, and avoiding smoking or other drugs.
The pneumococcal vaccine is used to protect people against pneumococcal infections, including pneumonia. While any person is allowed to receive the vaccine, it is most recommended for at-risk groups to receive the vaccine. These include:
● The elderly (adults over 65 years old)
● People suffering from long-term conditions
For the elderly, the vaccine is just a single jab, and does not require annual injections. Some people may require receiving a dose every 5 years. The vaccine promotes antibody growth in the person’s body to help battle pneumonia from developing.
Getting the Flu Shot
The flu shot, or the vaccine for influenza, has been shown to help prevent the development of severe pneumonia as a result of getting the flu. The flu vaccines are designed to “protect against the four influenza viruses that research indicates most common” during the fall and winter months. The flu vaccine is done either as a shot with a needle or by a nasal spray.
Wash hands thoroughly and often
Washing hands is an important way to avoid ingesting viruses or bacteria which may cause pneumonia. Washing hands is important after using the washroom, before eating, and before and after using public transportation. Hand sanitizer can also be used if soap is not available.
Practice good health habits
Promoting a good and strong immune system is important to help reduce the risk of developing pneumonia. Simple factors such as eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can make a big difference.
Manage chronic conditions
People with chronic or long-term health conditions are especially at risk for developing pneumonia. This is why it is crucial for anyone who has chronic conditions to try to treat them as quickly and effectively as possible to avoid further complications due to pneumonia.
Smoking can be an important cause of someone developing pneumonia. According to the Mayo Clinic, smoking “damages your body’s natural defences against the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia.” Avoiding smoking, especially for the elderly or people suffering from chronic conditions, is crucial to protect the person’s health.
Remember, it is absolutely crucial for someone with pneumonia to speak with a healthcare professional about treatment and medication to deal with the pneumonia. The kind of treatment a person will receive for their pneumonia will depend on the severity of the infection, their age, and whether they have any other chronic conditions.
How to Recover from Pneumonia
Pneumonia, especially severe pneumonia, can be very difficult on a person’s body both in the short-term and long-term. Taking the time to recover from pneumonia and taking care of one’s body is important to ensure the health and safety of the person.
Maintaining a Good Diet
Having the right nutrients in the body is essential to gain and maintain strength, immunity, and vitality. Having a good diet is just as important to prevent as well as to recover from pneumonia.
Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep can make worlds of a difference when it comes to physical and mental health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends adults between the ages of 18 and 60 get an average of seven hours of sleep per night. This will vary based on a variety of factors including daily physical activity, quality of sleep, and certain medical conditions. That said, what is important is not only the duration of sleep, but the quality of it.
Taking Care of Mental Health
Taking care of a person’s mental health after getting pneumonia is important. Whether the person has been hospitalized or has developed complications due to the condition, pneumonia can take a toll on a person’s mental health which is important to take into account. Ways to take care of mental health include:
● Seeing a therapist
● Talking to loved ones
● Performing self-care
There are also many online and in-person services available to help with mental health crises. It is important to never minimize the impact that sickness can have on a person’s mental wellbeing.
In this guide, we looked at the different symptoms, causes, and prevention measures of pneumonia, as well as other specifics important to know to best understand the disease. Remember that as a CDPAP, your responsibility is to support and help, not cure, the patient at hand. For any questions, refer to the patient’s health care professional.