6 Must-Know Signs of Pneumonia in Seniors
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The first thing you might notice when your loved one has pneumonia is that they look tired and rundown. Their skin feels warm and clammy but you notice that they are shaking and complain of the house being too cold.

Your loved one may stumble when getting out of bed. You see them struggling to catch their breath as they climb up the stairs. You could hear a wheezing sound as they breathe in and out.

Then there is the cough. Deep and wet sounding. They cough and cough desperately trying to clear the thick mucus out of their lungs.

You know this is serious. Pneumonia in the elderly can be life threatening. You need to know the early signs and symptoms of pneumonia and what you can do to help.

6 Pneumonia Symptoms in Elders

Pneumonia is an infection of your lungs. There can be swelling or fluid in the air sacs. This can cause trouble with breathing as well as affect energy levels and overall health.

If your loved one is sick, the signs of pneumonia include:

  1. Cough. Look out for a cough that does not clear up. Some types of pneumonia lead to mucus build-up in the lungs. This can cause one to cough up a greenish, yellow or even bloody substance.
  2. Fever (or low body temperature). Most people with pneumonia will have a fever. However, it is not unusual for people over 65 and a weak immune system to have a cooler body temperature instead of a fever.
  3. Chest pain. The infection in the lungs can cause pain when breathing or coughing. This can feel like a sharp stabbing pain in the chest with deep breathing or coughing.
  4. Fatigue. Fighting off an infection saps the body of energy. Your loved one may feel exhausted and depleted.
  5. Confusion. Exhaustion and infection can lead to temporary confusion and slips in mental awareness. This is often seen in the elderly.
  6. Shortness of breath. The air sacs in the lungs can fill with fluid or pus. This causes a cough but also difficulty breathing. You will especially notice this when your loved one needs to move quickly. For example, trying to rush to answer the phone or climbing stairs.

What are the Common Causes of Pneumonia for Older Adults?

Pneumonia is typically caused by bacteria or viruses. These germs are breathed into your lungs. When your immune system is strong you may be able to quickly fight these germs off.

The elderly may be more likely to have the germs cause an infection in their lungs due to weakened immune systems.

Even if they are usually healthy and fit, they can get pneumonia after you have caught a simple cold or flu. They may even catch pneumonia from being in the hospital.

The causes of pneumonia are broken down into three groups:

  1. Community-acquired pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is the one you can get from everyday interactions. The pneumonia bacteria or virus from the nose or sinuses can be breathed into your lungs. If you are healthy the bacteria may not affect you but in the elderly, the bacteria can quickly cause pneumonia.
  2. Hospital-acquired pneumonia. Unfortunately, a stay in the hospital or long-term care facility can make your loved one more likely to catch pneumonia. The bacteria that causes pneumonia may be more severe and resistant to antibiotics. People in the hospital are already sick and have a more difficult time fighting off pneumonia. If your loved one is on a ventilator or in the intensive care unit, talk to your doctor about preventing pneumonia.
  3. Aspiration pneumonia. When anything other than air enters your lungs, it can lead to pneumonia. This could include choking on or inhaling food, drinks, vomit or even saliva. Conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and strokes can affect the normal gag reflex. This may make your loved one more susceptible to pneumonia if they are prone to choking.

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How to Treat Pneumonia in Seniors

Pneumonia can often be treated at home. The goal is to rid your body of the infection while preventing more serious complications. Pneumonia affects the lungs and breathing. This makes it vital to ensure that the body is getting the oxygen it needs to recover. Following these steps can help to manage the symptoms of fever and cough so that your loved one can recover more quickly:

  1. Rest. Your body is able to fight off germs when you get adequate sleep. Encourage your loved one to stay in bed if they are weak or have a fever. While they are recovering, work in regular rest periods. A nap in the afternoon and an early bedtime or sleeping later in the morning is important. Arrange for your loved one to have help with meals and household chores. When you take care of the daily details, your loved one is more able to fully rest.
  2. Hydration. Keeping your body well hydrated can prevent the build-up of mucus in the lungs. Provide your loved one with plenty of fluids such as hot tea or water with lemon. These can help to loosen the secretions in their lungs and make it easier to breathe. A warm bath or humidifier can also help open the airways.
  3. Follow doctor’s orders. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the pneumonia is caused by bacteria. It is important to finish the prescription as ordered. You may also ask about using aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat fever and aches. A cough is part of your body’s protection. Do not take cough medicine unless recommended by your doctor. Your elderly loved one may need to see a doctor if:
    • They have other health conditions
    • Are having trouble breathing
    • The symptoms get worse

Recovery from pneumonia can take anywhere from a week to months. You will need to talk to your doctor about when it is appropriate to return to a normal routine.

An early response to the signs of pneumonia can be your best strategy for a smooth recovery.


American Lung Association: Pneumonia Treatment and Recovery

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Pneumonia

Mayo Clinic: Pneumonia Diagnosis and Treatment

MedlinePlus: Pneumonia – adults (community-acquired)

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Pneumonia

About the Author(s)

Crystal Jo is a Registered Nurse who is passionate about helping older adults live happy, healthy lives at home. As a freelance writer, she enjoys educating and inspiring seniors, and those who love them, to choose a healthy life.

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