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When pneumonia strikes, DispatchHealth has your back

Pneumonia, an infection that fills the air sacs in the lungs with liquid, is a common condition that puts about 1 million Americans per year in the hospital. While pneumonia is very treatable, its danger lies in the fact that symptoms are often mistaken for symptoms of less serious illnesses. Pneumonia poses a unique risk for the elderly, as well. Not only are seniors more likely to contract pneumonia with more severe symptoms than younger adults, but among seniors, pneumonia hospitalizations present a greater risk of death than any other reason for hospitalization. That’s why it’s essential to not only catch symptoms as quickly as possible, but to seek medical care in order to diagnose and treat pneumonia before it becomes an issue.

If this is an emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

Common symptoms & when to seek medical attention

Pneumonia symptoms can be difficult to spot in seniors because symptoms can easily be mistaken for another far less serious ailment: the flu. Even though many symptoms are similar, a medical professional will be able to spot the standouts that can lead to a diagnosis of pneumonia. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should seek treatment for pneumonia immediately:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Chest pain while breathing or coughing
  • Phlegm while coughing
  • Confusion
  • Sweating or chills
  • Yellow or green sputum
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • A reduced body temperature

Keep in mind that not all seniors will experience these symptoms simultaneously. This is part of the reason pneumonia is difficult to diagnose without the help of a medical professional. For instance, it’s easy to mistake confusion for dementia or Alzheimer’s, and nausea as being food-related. Many seniors experience symptoms like these every day. At DispatchHealth, we have the tools and expertise necessary to properly diagnose and treat pneumonia in non-life-threatening situations, so don’t leave it up to chance.

What causes pneumonia in seniors?

A number of organisms can cause pneumonia, but the elderly are more susceptible to certain kinds. Seniors are most likely to contract pneumonia due to bacteria or viruses, especially from the streptococcus bacteria. Streptococcus pneumonia is known to come on suddenly, which can make diagnosis difficult, given the similarity between many pneumonia symptoms and flu symptoms. This strain is also especially dangerous because it can cause meningitis in the brain, or bacteremia, which is the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream.

Seniors are more likely to contract pneumonia due to their weakened immune systems and higher likelihood of comorbidities, like heart issues. Seniors who have had strokes are also at higher risk for contracting pneumonia because stroke survivors often have a difficult time coughing. Coughing is our body’s primary mechanism for expelling infection-causing viruses and bacteria from the lungs, so those who can’t produce a strong cough are missing that defense.

How to prevent pneumonia in seniors

Contracting pneumonia is no walk in the park for seniors, especially when they suffer from another comorbidity like Alzheimer’s or a heart issue—or even a weakened immune system. It’s best to try to help your loved one prevent contracting pneumonia. Here are a few tried-and-true methods for preventing pneumonia, whether you’re a senior or a caretaker for one:

  • Vaccination. The CDC recommends vaccination for adults over the age of 65 to prevent pneumonia. There are different vaccinations for different strains, so be sure to consult a doctor to discuss options. According to the CDC, seniors should first get a dose of the PCV13 vaccination, then the PPSV23 vaccination a year later.
  • Frequent hand washing. Good personal hygiene can prevent the spread of infection-causing viruses and bacteria. This also includes other good habits like frequent bathing and clean bathroom habits.
  • Eating a healthy, immune-boosting diet. The immune system plays a big role in preventing pneumonia. Avoiding processed foods as much as possible and loading up on fruits and veggies can make a huge difference. Garlic, turmeric, spinach, and broccoli are all great for the immune system.
  • Good dental hygiene. Pneumonia infections can often be found around infected teeth, which makes good dental hygiene habits essential. It’s also a good idea to invest in an electric toothbrush with a two-minute timer, especially for those seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who have a difficult time remembering to brush thoroughly.
  • Plenty of exercise. Exercise can be difficult for seniors, but it’s essential for helping out the immune system. Most seniors like fun, low-impact exercise, like swimming or aerobics. Look for a seniors exercise class at the local gym; building community around exercising can help with accountability and make it a lot more fun.

If left untreated

About 50,000 people die each year from pneumonia. Pneumonia is very treatable if caught early, so it’s essential to seek treatment for signs and symptoms as soon as they appear, even if they seem to be flu symptoms. Seniors who recover from pneumonia don’t always get off scot-free, either; a number of long-term complications can develop as a result of the infection, like cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Untreated pneumonia symptoms can also lead to:

  • Bacteria entering the bloodstream. This can lead to infection in other organs, causing a whole host of problems.
  • Pleural effusion. Fluid can build up in between layers of pleura, often necessitating surgery.
  • Difficulty breathing. For seniors with pulmonary conditions like COPD, this is especially dangerous, and can lead to hospitalization.

Don’t let pneumonia go untreated, especially in the elderly. Request in-home care from DispatchHealth. We accept most major insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid, and our care costs a fraction of what a visit to the emergency room (ER) would. Contact us via our app, a phone call, or online.