Pneumonia and the Risks for Older Adults

Sunrise Senior Living  |  September 21, 2020
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As the search for treatment options and a vaccine for the coronavirus continue, it’s important that seniors take extra steps to protect their overall health. We know the seasonal flu begins to make its rounds in the fall. Often, this is the time of year when the number of cases of pneumonia starts to rise as well.

While the importance of an annual flu vaccine and the steps you can take to avoid the influenza bug are well established, fewer people are familiar with pneumonia and what causes it. A variety of organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, cause pneumonia. It’s an infection that inflames air sacs in one or both lungs, which may fill with fluid. Here are a few of the most common reasons seniors get infected with pneumonia.

Why Do Seniors Develop Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is generally caused by exposure to germs, either bacteria or a virus. While anyone can come into contact with these organisms, seniors are more likely to have life-threatening results for many reasons:

  • Weakened immune system: As we age, our immune system doesn’t work as well. It makes older people more susceptible to infections and illness.
  • Preexisting conditions: Chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, can also increase the risk for pneumonia.
  • Comorbidity: Seniors who contract the flu, or other respiratory illnesses, are more likely to see their condition turn into pneumonia.
  • Inability to cough: An older adult who is generally frail or suffering from a chronic disease, may be unable to produce a strong cough. That makes it difficult for the body to expel things that cause harm, including the germs that cause pneumonia.

Smoking can be another reason a person develops pneumonia. Tobacco damages the lungs making it more difficult for the body to fight infection. This can happen at any age. As a result, smoking puts all people in a high-risk group for developing pneumonia.

Preventing Pneumonia in Seniors

What can you do to protect yourself and the seniors in your life from pneumonia? We have some suggestions you’ll want to discuss with your primary care physician.

1. Get a pneumococcal vaccine: While most people are familiar with the annual flu shot, not everyone knows about the pneumococcal vaccine. Your doctor is the best one to make a recommendation, but health experts now suggest 2 shots given 1 year apart offers the best protection.

2. Practice healthy hygiene: Like the coronavirus, safeguarding our seniors from pneumonia requires practicing good hygiene. Washing hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water is vital. Equally important is using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available and keeping the older adult’s home clean and sanitary.

3. Avoid exposure to germs: When cold and flu are peaking in your community, stay home. It’s the best way to avoid being exposed to germs. If there are times you must go out, make sure to wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer with you. Maintain physical distance from others as much as possible.

4. Keep immune system strong: To the extent possible, work on boosting the immune system. A well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep are all important. Stay hydrated by drinking 8 glasses or more of water each day.

If you haven’t already done so, talk with your, or a senior loved one’s physician about what immunizations are necessary. From shingles to Tdap, there are a variety of vaccines that help older adults stay healthy. Learn more at What Immunizations Should Older Adults Discuss with Their Doctors?


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