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Pneumonia in the Elderly: What You Need to Know

Written by Kristen Hicks
 about the author
5 minute readLast updated April 10, 2023

No one actually likes going to the hospital. Being sick is bad enough, but getting sick to the point where you have to leave your own comfy bed to stay in a generic hospital room makes it all feel more dramatic. Making matters worse for seniors, the combination of a weakened immune system and hospitalization can often mean pneumonia. Unfortunately, pneumonia falls into that category of illnesses that are inconvenient and unpleasant for everyone, but regularly cause far more serious consequences for seniors. Seniors are both more prone to pneumonia and at a greater risk of dying because of it.

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Why Seniors Are Susceptible to Pneumonia

Pneumonia’s very contagious. It often attacks when someone’s immune system is weakened by another illness and it very commonly goes hand in hand with the flu. Since seniors have weaker immune systems than younger adults, their risk of having other types of illnesses that help open the door to pneumonia is higher.
Pneumonia can weaken a senior’s immune system further, making them more susceptible to a host of other health issues. Since older adults are slower to show the typical symptoms of pneumonia once they contract it and less likely to recognize the symptoms as being specific to pneumonia, they’re often not as quick to seek out treatment.
All this adds up to very bad news for seniors. Death by pneumonia (often coupled with another physical ailment, or several) is common.

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What You Can Do to Prevent Pneumonia

First things first: prevention. The ideal is to never get pneumonia to begin with, so everything you can do to help your loved one reduce their risk should be done.  Much of the list of steps you can take to help avoid pneumonia is familiar:
  • Quit smoking.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
Developing as healthy a lifestyle as possible will help strengthen your loved one’s immune system. This will help them get sick less often and heal faster when they do.
For pneumonia, we’ve got a few additional recommendations to add to the list.
  • Get your flu shot. Pneumonia often shows up in seniors who already have the flu. Avoiding the flu is a good idea anyway, but it will also reduce the risk of contracting pneumonia.
  • Get the pneumococcal vaccine. It doesn’t cover all types of pneumonia, but anything is better than nothing. The vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 65.
  • Avoid people that are sick. This may be hard to pull off for some seniors. Having a weak immune system to start with makes seniors more likely to catch illnesses from others.
Even if you do your best to follow all these guidelines, they are foolproof. If that happens, the most important next step is to recognize it quickly.

Symptoms of Pneumonia to Look Out For

It can be easy to attribute many of these symptoms to other health issues, but if your loved one experiences more than one of them, or if you feel that what they’re experiencing goes beyond the norm, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Get to a doctor to find out for sure whether or not it’s pneumonia if you see any of these symptoms:
  • A cough, especially if it produces mucus
  • Mucus that’s green or tinged with blood
  • Fever
  • Chills that cause shaking
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling weak
  • Chest pain – often made worse by the coughing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Confusion or delirium
Unfortunately, seniors often exhibit fewer symptoms or milder ones (such as a cough without mucus). That means even minor symptoms could point toward a serious problem. Don’t be afraid of overreacting. Talk to your loved one’s doctor if you’re worried.

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How to Treat Pneumonia

A doctor can prescribe the proper antibiotic or antiviral medications to treat pneumonia. Even if the symptoms start to go away and your loved one finds themselves feeling much better before they finish their medication, it’s important to finish the full course of treatment.
It’s often possible to take care of your loved one from home if their case isn’t too severe. Make sure they get lots of fluids, eat healthy, and avoid smoking until the illness has passed (although keeping those things up after it’s passed is a good idea too).

And one more thing…

Keep yourself healthy as well. A caregiver with pneumonia (or any other illness that’s contagious) puts the senior they’re taking care of at risk. Your health is just as important. Unchecked caregiver stress will weaken your immune system and make you more prone to the illnesses that can cause pneumonia. Self-care is an important component of taking care of someone else successfully.


Meet the Author
Kristen Hicks

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom (of which OurParents is a trademark) and the reader.  Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site.  Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.