In the elderly, pneumonia can be especially serious. This serious abnormal inflammation of the lungs can cause a severe blow to the immune system, even with a milder case. It can come on quickly and spread rapidly to other parts of the body such as the heart and bloodstream, which are weakened after onset. Seniors with underlying health problems—such as heart disease—can face an even tougher battle which could be deadly. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death in people with severe dementia and the fifth leading cause of death in the elderly.
Many seniors don’t realize they have pneumonia until it is too late. Some dismiss symptoms such as tiredness, loss of appetite and achiness as a product of other medical problems or simply the effects of old age. Older adults may not even run a fever. This differs from younger people, who may immediately call a doctor when feeling chills, trouble breathing and chest pain. Major symptoms of pneumonia are:
- Chest pain
- High fever
- Chills with shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Achiness in muscles and joints
Pneumonia must be treated quickly for best results. Lung capacity is decreased as seniors age, and they may not be able to productively cough up sputum that clears out the lungs. Treatment depends on the cause and may range from respiratory treatment that removes lung secretions to antibiotics. However, drugs may interfere with other medications the patient is taking or cause upset stomach which can counteract the dosage.
How can seniors get pneumonia? Mostly through breathing stagnant air that is too much for their already-weakened immune system, possibly compromised by flu, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), bad cold. Pneumonia reduces the blood flow to organs beyond the lungs, which can cause kidney failure and other serious conditions. While cold weather can weaken the immune system so it is more prone to infection, warmer and more humid weather in fact can spread respiratory diseases at a much faster rate since bacteria thrive in such conditions.
Now for the positive news: a one-time pneumonia vaccine is available to those 65 years old and older. It protects against the potentially dangerous streptococcus pneumonia bacteria (pneumonococcus), which can cause the aforementioned lung, brain and blood infections. There are two different types of the vaccine: PPSV23 protects against 23 strains of streptococcus pneumonia and is marketed as Pneumovax. The vaccine is made from dead bacteria; dead germs cannot make anyone sick. The other type is a conjugate vaccine called Prevnar 13 (PCV13 vaccine). It is usually given to infants and toddlers, but received FDA approval in 2011 to be administered to adults age 50 and older. It is recommended that adults age 65 or older get both vaccines since they are effective against different strains of the disease, starting with the PCV13 vaccine and followed by the PPSV23 vaccine 8 weeks later. Adults that received the PPSV23 vaccine first should receive the PCV13 vaccine a year or more later. Adults over 65 who received PPSV23 before age 65 require a booster shot if it has been more than 5 years since they were vaccinated.
Unfortunately, getting vaccinated will not eliminate the chance of getting pneumonia entirely but it does significantly reduce the risk. PCV13 was found to be 75% effective and PPSV23 50-85% effective against the serotypes contained in the respective vaccines. So regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated, always watch your senior’s health and never underestimate the potential risks of contracting pneumonia.