Along with the cooler weather and more time spent indoors comes a greater chance of contracting illnesses such as pneumonia. Pneumonia occurs when an infection, caused by bacteria or a virus, inflames tiny air sacs in the lungs and causes them to fill with fluid. The result is decreased lung capacity and less oxygen in the blood stream. The elderly are especially prone to developing pneumonia, partly because their immune systems tends to be weaker, partly because they may have underlying conditions, such as heart disease, that put them at greater risk.
As with other conditions, preventing pneumonia is mostly a matter of attention to basic health measures. Frequent handwashing, eating well, staying hydrated, and being sure to get sufficient sleep and exercise all help build a stronger immune system. If the grandkids have a bad cold or the flu, keep them away from their grandparents until they are feeling better. Because pneumonia can develop as a result of the flu, getting a flu vaccine is another good precaution. Additionally, talk to your parent’s doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine – it can prevent several strains of bacterial pneumonia. If your loved one smokes, encourage them to quit. Damaged lungs cannot fight off an infection as easily as healthy lungs.
It is important to know the symptoms of pneumonia so you can distinguish them from a typical cold or flu virus. However, pneumonia symptoms in the elderly may differ from the symptoms of younger people. They may experience an overall feeling of malaise, or seem more confused than normal. They may even experience a lower body temperature, rather than a fever. But in general, symptoms of pneumonia include chest pain, a cough (possibly with green or yellow mucus), feeling breathless, and fever and chills. While self-diagnosis may be tricky, it is relatively easy for a doctor to tell if your loved one has pneumonia just by listening to their breathing through a stethoscope. Pneumonia produces a telltale crackling sound in the lungs. But additional tests, such as x-rays, pulse oximetry tests to measure the oxygen levels in the blood, or a CT scan may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment of pneumonia depends on whether the symptoms are being caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Viral pneumonia is usually treated like the flu, with plenty of rest and fluids. Cough suppressants can be prescribed if the patient is not able to rest due to a nagging cough, but in general, it is better to cough as needed to break up mucus in the lungs. Antibiotics are not an effective treatment for viral pneumonia.
Treatment of bacterial pneumonia requires antibiotics. If your loved one is prescribed antibiotics it is extremely important that they take them exactly as prescribed and that they finish the entire dosage, even if they feel better before doing so. Not completing a course of antibiotics can actually cause a rebound of symptoms, in addition to the possibility of bacterial resistance in the second round of treatment. In severe cases, or in cases where home measures or antibiotics are not enough, hospitalization may be warranted. In any case, recovering from pneumonia may take several weeks, so let your loved one know that they may be under the doctor’s orders to rest and heal for quite some time.