How to Lower the Risk of Pneumonia for At-Risk Seniors

Medically reviewed by Dr. Kenneth Knowles, MD on January 2nd, 2020

senior man coughing

Did you know that pneumonia affects millions of people every year? We’re talking around seven percent of the global population! When you look at this percentage closer, the majority affected are youngsters and seniors—especially those with existing medical conditions. Why? While there are treatments for this infection, it can become fatal in situations where the patient has difficulty communicating and recognizing their symptoms. For this reason and more, it’s important for family, friends, and caretakers to understand the symptoms associated with this life-threatening infection—particularly in high-risk individuals. In this article, we’ll review the common symptoms of pneumonia, why high-risk seniors should be monitored for this infection, and provide tips on how you can work with your at-risk loved one to lower their chances of contraction during cold and flu season.

What is Pneumonia?

Typically caused by shared bacteria or brought on by a virus, pneumonia occurs when the alveoli—microscopic air sacs in your lungs—become irritated and inflamed. Although pneumonia is very contagious, at-risk seniors typically contract it from themselves. Before your mind explodes, let us explain. Everyone carries a healthy amount of bacteria in their throat and lungs, resulting in a clear mucus drainage. Unfortunately, many seniors—especially those with chronic  obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or a different underlying health issue that affects the lungs—can’t clear their throats of excess mucus. And, at some point, the slow drip will start to travel down the bronchial tubes, filling the lungs with liquid. After this happens, breathing can become a chore and the infection can become life-threatening.

Symptoms & Signs

Although you may think that the uncomfortable feeling of mucus steadily dripping down your throat would be enough to send anyone to the doctor, in some cases, it isn’t. For frail seniors or those suffering from a comorbidity that affects the lungs, secretion and difficulty breathing could simply be routine. That’s why it’s so important for caretakers of at-risk seniors to be aware of the symptoms of pneumonia. Some common indicators can include:

What Puts Seniors at Greater Risk of Contraction?

If not treated by a medical professional, pneumonia can become deadly. In fact, pneumonia results in thousands of deaths annually in the United States—particularly in adults 65 or older. As pneumonia sets in, oxygen in the blood declines and decreases circulation to the lungs. This makes the infection dangerous for at-risk seniors with COPD or another established breathing ailment. Likewise, once contracted, at-risk seniors with pneumonia have a difficult time recovering from the infection—sometimes taking up to several months to return to health.

Risk Factors

The elderly are more frail than younger individuals; it’s simply a part of the aging process. That being said, there are a number of relative risk factors that put seniors at greater risk of contracting pneumonia. Some of the biggest factors include:

  • Chronic diseasesAlzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and other health conditions can put seniors at higher risk of developing pneumonia. Lung conditions like COPD and asthma contribute significantly more. 
  • Smoking or a history of smoking — Smoking damages lungs, putting more strain on the muscles to breathe. In turn, this can impact a person’s ability to clear their lungs and throat of excess secretion.
  • Weakened immune systems — Immune systems weaken as we age. This makes it difficult for seniors to fight off severe infections like pneumonia. 
  • Being hospitalized — Whether your elderly loved one was recently hospitalized for surgery or a different ailment, the environment and medications can all jeopardize the immune system.

Prevention & Healthy Tips for At-Risk Patients

Serious complications of pneumonia are more harmful to at-risk seniors. Therefore, taking extra precautions to maintain peak health during cold and flu is crucial. While this may seem like an impossible feat, you can help lower the risk of serious respiratory infections in older adults by following these tips in addition to living a healthy lifestyle:

  • Get vaccinated. Advising at-risk seniors to receive a vaccination against bacterial pneumococcal pneumonia, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, is a great defense. This is a one-time vaccination that can reduce the severity of the infection, making it easier for seniors to recover from the ailment. 
  • Encourage good hygiene. Washing hands, covering sneezes, and sanitizing contaminated environments are also important healthcare practices to follow—especially in the case of an at-risk patient who already has sensitivities to the environment. 
  • Understand your loved one’s medical condition. Teaching your loved one about their comorbidity and the symptoms related to pneumonia are two great ways to help them recognize an oncoming cold. This is also the perfect opportunity to learn about their condition yourself, helping you develop an awareness of symptoms. 
  • Avoid smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for pneumonia, as it affects the lungs’ ability to defend against infection. To help at-risk seniors lower their chances of contracting a respiratory infection, one of the best things you can do is encourage them to stop smoking.

How DispatchHealth Can Help

When caring for a sick and elderly loved one, the last thing you want to do is plan a trip to the emergency room. To avoid the germ-infested waiting rooms and expected delays, consider the benefits of on-demand medical care from DispatchHealth. Our service is geared toward those who have difficulty traveling to a traditional ER due to severe medical conditions, anxieties, and weakened immunities. In fact, our service has been particularly beneficial for at-risk seniors who suffer from existing medical conditions—like COPD—that weaken the immune system and bodily functions. For ER-level treatment in the comfort of your home, simply reach out to us via phone, mobile app, or website. Soon after, our medical professionals will arrive at your doorstep equipped to evaluate your condition, provide treatment, and even prescribe medication. Best of all, we accept most major forms of medical insurance—including Medicare and Medicaid—helping you and your loved ones benefit from affordable and comprehensive healthcare. 

taking care of senior at home

To learn more about the benefits of on-demand medical care from DispatchHealth, contact us today! 

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies. 

Sources referenced in this article: 

  1. https://www.aging.com/what-causes-pneumonia-in-the-elderly/ 
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354204
  3. https://www.nurseregistry.com/blog/pneumonia-risk-among-seniors/
  4. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/pneumonia-and-elders-why-they-are-more-susceptible-136822.htm
  5. https://www.healthinaging.org/blog/tips-on-preventing-pneumonia-in-older-adults/
  6. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pneumonia
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DispatchHealth Staff The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.