Last Updated: November 13, 2019
As the weather gets colder and wetter, we start to hear a lot about the implications of flu season. However, it is equally as important to stay informed about another infection that’s a dangerous threat for our older loved ones: pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes problems with breathing, leading to high fever and other life-threatening symptoms.
Pneumonia can originate from bacteria, viruses and many other causes. It is one of the most common illnesses in older adults.1 The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that more than 60 percent of seniors over 65 have been admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia.2
Taking good care of health is essential for preventing any serious respiratory infection. This preventative measure is useful for people of any age. Older adults, however, are especially vulnerable to pneumonia due to weakened immune systems as a result of aging. Here are five helpful ways to keep loved ones safe from the illness:
Smoking is a major risk factor for pneumonia. Smoking harms the lungs’ ability to defend against infection, greatly increasing the individual’s likelihood of getting the disease. One way to help at-risk seniors is to encourage them to stop smoking. It’s also important for caregivers to avoid smoking around older loved ones. A smoke-free environment promotes excellent lung health.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Mayo Clinic both advise at-risk seniors to get vaccinated against bacterial pneumococcal pneumonia.3 This one-time vaccine can prevent or reduce the severity of bacterial pneumonia. Doctors may suggest a booster vaccine after five years. Additionally, making sure that your loved ones are up to date with annual flu shots may reduce their risks of developing pneumonia.4 Scheduling vaccinations against illnesses such as influenza may strengthen the senior’s defenses against bacterial pneumonia and other threatening health conditions.5
When pneumonia appears, getting immediate treatment can help patients deal successfully with the symptoms. Depending on the severity of the pneumococcal infection, immediate treatment can save someone’s life. Here are a few symptoms to watch for:
According to the Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, it can be more difficult to detect bacterial pneumonia in seniors because the elderly may not always have the classic symptoms of cough and fever. When caring for older adults, keep an eye out for non-respiratory pneumonia symptoms in seniors.6 These symptoms include confusion, delirium or dizziness. Stay alert to any changes in your parent’s or loved one’s health if they have a preexisting condition that can mask the symptoms of pneumonia. Make sure that if they have been prescribed antibiotics, they take them as directed and don’t miss a dose.
Maintaining excellent hygiene can strengthen the body’s defenses against pneumonia and other infections. It can also reduce the risk of developing respiratory infections and viruses and transmitting them to others. Mayo Clinic advises people of all ages to wash their hands regularly to prevent the spread of a cold or flu.7
Good dental hygiene in older adults is also a must for fighting pneumonia. Dental or oral infections can not only cause respiratory infections, but pneumonia as well. Remind loved ones to brush their teeth every day and follow a good nightly cleaning routine if they have dentures.
Helping seniors avoid others who are ill is another great preventative measure. Be on the lookout for people with chickenpox, measles, flu, and respiratory infections. Make sure that your loved one steers clear for a week or two until their health is no longer at serious risk. If older adults aren’t careful, these conditions can lead to pneumonia.
A key to preventing pneumonia is keeping the immune system strong so that it can fight off infections. Make sure your parent follows appropriate nutrition guidelines for seniors and get the vitamins and minerals needed to boost health. Important vitamins for the immune system include vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E.8
Staying active and getting plenty of physical exercise can have a positive effect on the immune system. Try to help loved ones sleep well at night, rest properly and avoid stress. Good overall health habits protect against invaders.
A ventilator is a machine that delivers oxygen to patients who are no longer able to breathe on their own. Ventilators are often used for older adults who are recovering from surgery or are fighting serious illness in intensive care. Caregivers with loved ones who receive breathing assistance from a ventilator need to remain alert for the warning signs of ventilator-associated pneumonia.9 This disease can appear if germs enter the lungs through breathing tubes.
To prevent ventilator-associated pneumonia, the CDC suggests that health care providers keep the head of a patient’s bed raised between 30 and 45 degrees if possible.10 It’s essential to clean or replace tubes before using them with a new patient. Here are a few other steps that can help:
These guidelines principally fall on doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Caregivers and families can help prevent the likelihood of their loved one getting pneumonia by ensuring that the facility has an excellent reputation for cleanliness. Also, it may be necessary to respectfully address this concern with the medical professionals of the facility.
According to the CDC, family members should do the following to help prevent ventilator-associated pneumonia:
There is nothing wrong with caregivers requesting that doctors and nurses follow good hygiene practices for their loved ones. When patients who are in a vulnerable state have someone looking out for them, it can have a significant effect on preventing pneumonia.
Postoperative pneumonia is something that caregivers and family members need to be aware of anytime an older loved one needs surgery. This type of pneumonia is especially dangerous because hospitals may have viruses or strains of bacteria that are resistant to treatment, including antibiotics. Undergoing surgery increases the risk of developing pneumonia for older patients for many reasons. People recovering from surgery may have a weakened immune system because of severe wounds or certain medications used during the operation. General anesthesia may increase the danger of this type of complication.11 Seniors may also be fighting other illnesses at the same time, so the doctors should make sure they continue to take antibiotics as needed. In spite of strict cleaning, hospitals sometimes have bacteria present that can take advantage of vulnerable immune systems.
All patients who undergo anesthesia and surgery need to be careful in regards to avoiding pneumonia. Here are a few things that doctors and caregivers can do to reduce risks:
Most hospitals have requirements in place for maintaining intensive care units, but you can also put your foot down as a caregiver. Having friends around can keep patients in good spirits and speed up the recovery process, but it’s important to avoid transmitting illness. To protect a recovering older adult, you may need to require all visitors to wash their hands and wear protective clothing. Never allow people who are sick to be around your loved one.
Aspiration pneumonia can develop if patients accidentally inhale liquid, food, saliva or stomach acid.12 These contaminants often carry bacteria, which can gradually multiply in lung tissue and cause a pneumococcal infection. Normally, the body’s gag reflex causes people to cough or vomit foreign material, keeping airways clear. However, in some older adults, this doesn’t happen, and food stays inside the lungs.
Why do some older adults have trouble coughing normally? There are a number of potential causes:
If your loved one has one of these conditions, it’s vital to take steps to prevent aspiration pneumonia.13 Older adults that are fully alert can keep food and liquids from entering the lungs by sitting up straight while eating and drinking. It’s also a good idea to eat soft foods, take small bites and drink liquids using a straw. Thickened liquids are usually easier to swallow.
If caregivers need to feed loved ones by hand, there are steps they can take to reduce the possibility of food traveling down the wrong tube. For example, older adults should be allowed to rest for about 30-minutes before feeding sessions, since this helps muscles for swallowing to get ready. Take it slow, giving the person plenty of time to chew and swallow. If possible, give food or drink when the seniors are sitting in a chair. Otherwise, elevate the backrest of the bed to a 90-degree angle.
Pneumonia is a serious disease. Taking the time to help loved ones strengthen their immune system, avoid risky situations, maintain excellent hygiene and get prompt medical treatment can be an extremely helpful way of showing that you care. Staying free of pneumonia enables seniors to live life with more comfort and happiness.
What other suggestions do you have for preventing pneumonia and seasonal respiratory infections? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.
1Stevenson, S. (2019, June 20). The 5 Most Common Infections in the Elderly. Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/2013-10-22-common-elderly-infections/.
2Mouton, C. P., Bazaldua, O. V., Pierce, B., & Espino, D. V. (2001, January 15). Common Infections in Older Adults. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/0115/p257.html.
3Pneumonia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pneumonia.
4Reinberg, S. (2015, October 5). Flu Vaccine May Also Protect Against Pneumonia. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20151005/flu-vaccine-may-also-protect-against-pneumonia#1.
5Senior Flu Prevention. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/senior-flu-prevention.
6Elderly Pneumonia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/pneumonia-in-the-elderly.
7Pneumonia. (2018, March 13). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204.
8Team, V. (2018, December 18). 3 Vitamins That Are Best for Boosting Your Immunity. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-vitamins-best-boosting-immunity/.
9Frequently Asked Questions about Ventilator-associated Pneumonia. (2019, May 9). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hai/vap/vap_faqs.html.
10How to Prevent Ventilator Associated Pneumonia (VAP). (2019, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.americansentinel.edu/blog/2013/05/27/preventing-ventilator-associated-pneumonia-vap/.
11Khatri, M. (2018, October 5). 6 Serious Complications of Pneumonia You Should Know. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/lung/complications-pneumonia#1.
12Aspiration pneumonia: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000121.htm.
13Preventing Aspiration in Older Adults with Dysphagia: ConsultGeri Assessment Tool. (2019, October 4). Retrieved from https://consultgeri.org/try-this/general-assessment/issue-20.