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Facts About Pneumonia in Elderly Adults

10 minute readLast updated November 1, 2023
fact checkedon November 1, 2023
Written by Melissa Bean, senior living writer
Medically reviewed by Amanda Lundberg, RN, family medicine expertAmanda Lundberg is a registered nurse with over 10 years of experience in clinical settings, working extensively with seniors and focusing on wellness and preventative care.
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Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be serious in older adults. In fact, pneumonia is responsible for more than one million hospitalizations every year, according to the American Lung Association. Because our immune systems typically weaken as we age, seniors are generally at higher risk for complications and death. However, risk factors vary from person to person. Learn the facts about this potentially severe respiratory infection and how to prevent pneumonia in elderly adults. If you suspect your elderly loved one has pneumonia, see a doctor right away.

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Key Takeaways

  1. Pneumonia is a respiratory infection, which can be serious in older adults.
  2. There are more than 30 causes of pneumonia and treatment depends on the cause.
  3. Seniors may be more susceptible to pneumonia due to age, chronic health conditions, etc.
  4. Older adults can take steps to help prevent pneumonia, including eating healthy, managing chronic conditions, exercising, and more.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that makes it difficult for the body to receive enough oxygen. Specifically, this infection causes inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs.[01]

Pneumonia can affect one or both lungs – also called double pneumonia. The severity of the infection depends on age, overall health, and what caused the infection.

What causes pneumonia?

There are more than 30 unique causes of pneumonia that can affect people of any age.[01] The causes of pneumonia include the following:

  • Bacteria, such as Streptococcus pneumonia or Legionella pneumophila (also referred to as Legionnaire’s disease)
  • Viruses, such as influenza virus or SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19
  • Fungi, such as the fungus that causes Valley Fever [02]

What are the symptoms of pneumonia in seniors?

Signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Malaise or fatigue
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Chest pain that feels sharp or feels like stabbing
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Fever [03]

Symptoms may vary based on the cause of the pneumonia and how your loved one’s body responds to it. Sometimes, symptoms of pneumonia may be different in seniors. They may also be less alert, show signs of confusion, or experience changes in mental awareness. If you suspect your loved one has pneumonia, see a doctor promptly.[03]

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Why are seniors more susceptible to pneumonia?

Adults 65 and older are typically more susceptible to pneumonia than younger people are. Seniors with pneumonia are also at increased risk for hospitalization, complications, and death.[04]

Researchers and doctors don’t fully understand why pneumonia is more aggressive in seniors. Older adults may have underlying health conditions or other risk factors that can make pneumonia more severe, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Sickle cell disease
  • A weakened immune system, as the result of chemotherapy, long-term steroid usage, etc.
  • Difficulty swallowing related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or other health issues
  • Recent hospitalizations or viral respiratory infections
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)[05]

What kind of complications from pneumonia can occur in seniors?

Pneumonia complications for people of all ages include the following:

  • Lung abscesses, a type of pus-filled cavity that can develop within an infected lung
  • Respiratory failure or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which can cause serious oxygen exchange issues in the body
  • Sepsis, which results in uncontrollable inflammation throughout the body and can potentially cause organ failure
  • Organ damage, which may affect the heart, liver, or kidneys [06,07]

While complications can be more common in elderly adults, the risk of complications depends upon an individual’s health and other unique circumstances.

How dangerous is pneumonia for elderly adults?

The death rate among elderly adults with severe pneumonia is as high as 20%. Pneumonia in elderly adults can often be serious and progress quickly.[04]

The survival rate of pneumonia varies based on many factors. For example, community-acquired pneumonia or CAP, is considered one of the leading causes of hospitalization and is responsible for about 2.5 million deaths worldwide every year.[08]

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How is pneumonia diagnosed?

A medical provider may use the following to diagnose pneumonia:

  • Gathering health history from the patient
  • Performing a physical exam
  • Conducting a chest X-ray, blood tests, pulse oximetry, or other necessary tests[09]

The process of diagnosing pneumonia may vary depending on your loved one’s health and their provider’s discretion.

Older adults, especially those with severe symptoms or those who are hospitalized, might undergo the following tests to diagnose pneumonia:

  • A blood culture
  • A CT scan
  • A sputum test, which assesses a sample of mucus[09]

How is pneumonia in seniors treated?

Treatment for pneumonia will depend upon what caused the pneumonia. For example, pneumonia caused by bacteria may be treated with appropriate antibiotics, while antibiotics would typically not be used to treat pneumonia caused by a virus.

In general, you can help your loved one recover from pneumonia by doing the following:

  • Encouraging them to follow the treatment plan provided by their medical care team
  • Preparing healthy, nutritious meals for them
  • Helping them stay hydrated by encouraging plenty of fluids
  • Inspiring them to do light physical activity, as long as it is allowed in their treatment plan
  • Taking deep breaths with them multiple times a day [07]

How to find help with caregiving for a senior recovering from pneumonia

It can be overwhelming to be your loved one’s caregiver 24/7, especially when they have experienced severe pneumonia.

If your loved one is recovering from pneumonia after a hospital stay or just needs help with daily activities, consider a short-term stay at an assisted living community or transitional home care.

If your loved one has experienced severe complications and can’t return to their normal living arrangement, you may want to consider long-term care at a senior living community. The Senior Living Advisors at A Place for Mom can help you explore local senior care options, all at no cost to you.

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How can seniors and their families prevent pneumonia?

Older adults and their loved ones can help prevent pneumonia through a variety of measures, including the following:

  • Wash hands frequently. If you or your loved one are unable to wash your hands, alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be a good alternative.
  • Stop smoking and limit exposure to second-hand smoke. People who use tobacco are considered high risk for getting pneumonia.
  • Stay on top of your health conditions. Consider working with your or your loved one’s health care provider to manage chronic illnesses and issues.
  • Take care of your or your loved one’s physical health. Eating nutritious foods, regular exercise, and prioritizing healthy sleeping patterns can reduce your risk.
  • Consider appropriate vaccinations. Speak to your or your loved one’s health care provider to learn if the pneumonia shot (pneumococcal vaccine), COVID-19 vaccine, flu shot (influenza vaccine), RSV vaccine, Whooping Cough vaccine, or another vaccine may help lower individual risks of pneumonia.
  • If you have a swallowing issue, speak to your medical provider. They may suggest that you or your loved one make lifestyle modifications, such as eating smaller meals, eating thickened foods, or sleeping with your head elevated.
  • Monitor your health following a cold or similar illness. If you notice lingering symptoms, contact your or your love one’s medical care team for further guidance.[10,11]

Note: This article is for general information purposes only. Speak to a medical professional if you are concerned about you or your loved one having pneumonia or similar symptoms.


  1. American Lung Association. (2022, November 17). Five facts you should know about pneumonia.

  2. American Lung Association. (2023, August 3). What causes pneumonia.

  3. American Lung Association. (2023, August 3). Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis.

  4. Li, W., Ding, C., & Yin, S. (2015, August 15). Severe pneumonia in the elderly: a multivariate analysis of risk factors.

  5. American Lung Association. (2022, November 17). Learn about pneumonia.

  6. American Lung Association. (2023, September 26). Pneumonia treatment and recovery.

  7. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March 24). Pneumonia recovery.

  8. Lüthi-Corridori, G., Boesing, M., Roth, A., Giezendanner, S., Leuppi-Taegtmeyer, A.B., Schuetz, P., and Leuppi, J.D. (2023, August, 28). Predictors of Length of Stay, Rehospitalization and Mortality in Community-Acquired Pneumonia Patients: A Retrospective Cohort Study. Journal of Clinical Medicine.

  9. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March 24). Pneumonia diagnosis.

  10. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March 24). Pneumonia prevention.

  11. American Lung Association. (2023, October 23). Preventing pneumonia.

Meet the Author
Melissa Bean, senior living writer

Melissa Bean is a former veterans content specialist at A Place for Mom, where she crafted easy-to-understand articles about VA resources, senior care payment options, dementia caregiving, and more. Melissa pairs over a decade of writing experience with her time as a military spouse, during which she organized and led a multistate military family support group.

Reviewed by

Amanda Lundberg, RN, family medicine expert

The information contained on this page 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 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 endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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