Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be serious in older adults. According to the CDC, hundreds of thousands of seniors are hospitalized with the disease and about 50,000 die every year.
While a person may become infected with pneumonia at any time of the year, instances are more prevalent during the winter months. And this year, with Covid-19 added to the mix, the risk for developing serious infection or a co-infection is even greater.
Keep reading for measures you can take to stay as healthy as possible during the winter months ahead.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli. The sacs may fill with fluid or pus, making breathing difficult, and the disease can affect one or both lungs. Other symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain when breathing
- Cough (usually a wet one that produces phlegm)
It is important to note that seniors may develop different symptoms such as confusion and changes in mental awareness.
Pneumonia in Older Adults
According to the NCBI, the death rate among older adults with severe pneumonia can be as high as 20%. While experts aren’t sure why pneumonia is more aggressive in seniors, there are likely a variety of contributing factors:
- As people age, their immune systems weaken, leaving them less able to fend off infection
- The normal aging process weakens lung function
- Chronic health conditions such as COPD and heart disease can exacerbate the effects of pneumonia
Additionally, older adults are at increased risk of complications of pneumonia, including bacteremia, pleurisy, lung abscess, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
What Causes Pneumonia?
Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms. It can occur on its own or after someone has been infected with a cold or flu, and it is sometimes a severe side effect of Covid-19.
Pneumonia caused by viruses such as flu or Covid can be especially severe and even deadly, especially in older adults. Those with a weakened immune system, recovering from a recent surgery or illness, or who suffer from chronic health conditions are at particular risk.
Preventing Pneumonia in Older Adults
Older adults – especially those with pre-existing conditions – are encouraged to receive the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine and the flu vaccine every year.
Other ways of preventing pneumonia, and staying generally healthy during winter months, include:
- Wash hands thoroughly and often. The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to clean hands BEFORE and AFTER:
- Touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
- Touching your mask
- Entering and leaving a public place
- Touching an item or surface that may be frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, tables, gas pumps, shopping carts, or electronic cashier registers/screens
- Practice good health habits such as staying physically active and eating a diet high in produce and whole grains.
- Manage chronic conditions such as COPD, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Don’t smoke. If you’re a smoker, talk to your doctor about help quitting.
Because pneumonia and its complications can be difficult to diagnose and treat in seniors, it is vital to take preventative measures now. Talk to your doctor about how you can help keep yourself safe from pneumonia this winter – and all year long.