Early Warning Signs of Pneumonia
Are you concerned that your elderly loved one may have pneumonia or some other lung-related illness? You are right to be concerned. According to the American Thoracic Society, over 50,000 Americans die from pneumonia each year.
For senior citizens, contracting pneumonia is especially dangerous. Pneumonia leads to death more often than any other hospitalized illness. Become informed of the early warning signs of pneumonia so you can keep the senior citizen in your life as healthy as possible.
Early Warning Signs of Pneumonia for Seniors
The early warning signs of pneumonia may be surprising to you. While you may associate pneumonia with a phlegmy cough and a high fever, senior citizens suffering from pneumonia may have more mild symptoms.
Instead of a cough and fever, your loved one could have a lower than average body temperature. Ask the following questions about the senior citizen in your life if you think he or she could have pneumonia:
- Does he or she feel excessively tired or weak?
- Does he or she complain of chest or rib pain while breathing or coughing?
- Has he or she suffered from nausea?
- Has your love one vomited?
- Does the senior have diarrhea?
- Does he or she have shortness of breath?
While many of these symptoms could indicate another illness, they can, in fact, also be signs of pneumonia.
Pneumonia can be tricky for a person who is not medically trained to diagnose for a variety of reasons.
Those with pneumonia may have a fever, or they may not. The older adult with pneumonia may or may not suffer chills.
Another problem with trying to determine if your loved one has pneumonia is that sometimes a person with dementia may not be able to describe his or her symptoms with accuracy.
Also, a person with pneumonia may not realize the seriousness of the illness. While your loved one may admit to not feeling his best, he may attribute the symptoms of the illness to “having a little cold.” This is especially true for the elderly who may not want to “bother” their caretakers with an illness that needs treatment.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the lung. A person with pneumonia has a difficult time breathing because his or her lungs are filled with fluid. If a person has a difficult time breathing, their blood’s oxygen level becomes dangerously low.
What Causes Pneumonia?
Microbes cause pneumonia. Sometimes those microbes are bacteria, and sometimes they are viruses. These microbes can be transmitted via the air or by hand-to-hand contact. A healthy person’s immune system should be able to fight off pneumonia, but often senior citizen’s health may be compromised because of other illnesses.
Elderly in America are most likely to get pneumonia caused by the streptococcus (or pneumococcal) bacteria. In fact, this type of pneumonia causes approximately 40,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Viruses can also trigger pneumonia. Usually, pneumonia caused by viruses is less severe than pneumonia caused by bacteria.
Why is Pneumonia Dangerous for the Elderly?
Even if your loved one is able to recover from a case of pneumonia, he or she may suffer from long-term effects from the illness. Survivors may be weak mentally and physically. He or she may also have increased symptoms of cardiovascular disease. Overall, the elderly patient’s quality of life may decline after fighting pneumonia.
How Does a Doctor Diagnose Pneumonia?
You may feel that the symptoms your loved one is displaying warrants a visit to the doctor. You may have to insist on a visit to the doctor’s office, especially if the elderly patient’s dementia causes him or her not to understand the severity of the illness.
During the appointment, the doctor will listen to the patient’s lungs to see if he or she can hear bubbling or rattling sounds. These sounds can mean the patient is fighting an infection or has inflammation in the lungs. The doctor will give the patient a pulse oximetry test to measure the blood’s oxygen levels. Often, a doctor will ask the patient to undergo a chest x-ray or a CT scan for diagnostic purposes. Sometimes the doctor will test the patient’s phlegm or blood to help determine which microbe is responsible for pneumonia.
Treatment for pneumonia
If the doctor is able to determine the microbe responsible for pneumonia, he or she will have an easier time treating the illness. If the patient has viral pneumonia, the doctor may recommend rest, fluids, and a healthy diet. There may be no medications administered.
If your loved one has bacterial pneumonia, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics. It is essential that your love one finishes the entire course of antibiotics if one is prescribed. Several years ago, scientists were noticing that the organisms that caused disease mutated and become resistant to antibiotics. These mutations have decreased as education efforts have stressed the importance of finishing the round of antibiotics once started.
Most of the time, patients with pneumonia can heal at home. If a patient has a more severe case of pneumonia, a hospital stay may be necessary.
Whether or not your loved one is in the hospital, he or she may take over-the-counter medications to ease fevers, chills, and aches. Coughing is our body’s natural way of getting rid of an infection, and so it shouldn’t be completely reduced.
A patient with severe pneumonia may need to have oxygen therapy to increase blood oxygen levels.
It is also vital that patients are properly hydrated no matter if they are being treated at home or at the hospital. Drinking water will help loosen the mucus in the lungs, and the lungs will clear sooner.
Complications that can arise from pneumonia
The reason that pneumonia is so dangerous for the elderly is that there is a high risk of developing complications. The elderly may develop bacteremia, an infection that can infect the organs of the body. The membrane that covers the lung can become inflamed and then infected. An abscess can develop on the lung in the infected area.
In the most severe cases, respiratory failure can occur. This may require that you loved one uses a ventilator and supplemental oxygen. If this happens, hopefully, your loved one will already have already completed a living will or durable power of attorney.
Pneumonia causes the most harm when a person’s immune system is weakened. Healthy habits can decrease the chance of your loved one getting pneumonia. These habits include exercise, rest, and healthy eating. Your loved one should also practice proper hand washing and dental hygiene.
There is a pneumococcal vaccine available, but it doesn’t always work well. Experts say that the first dose should be given when a patient is around 50 years old. The second dose should come around the age of 65. After that, a new dose should be given every five years.
Doctors also recommend that the elderly receive a yearly flu vaccine. Pneumonia is often a complication that can occur after an initial bout of flu. An older adult who gets a flu shot every year is less likely to develop pneumonia.
When in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of caution, especially when dealing with pneumonia.