Doctor administering exam to prevent pneumonia in an elderly patient.

How Seniors Can Prevent Pneumonia

Bethesda Health | November 5, 2019

One million cases of pneumonia were reported in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control in 2018, resulting in 50,000 deaths. Seniors aged 65 and older are more susceptible to pneumonia, and often are less able to fend it off due to their weakening immune systems. In addition, many illnesses and conditions compound the danger for senior adults to catch pneumonia. All of these factors make pneumonia prevention a must for seniors.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs with symptoms of fever, chills, cough, chest pain, and trouble breathing. It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Influenza often provides an entryway into the body for pneumonia, particularly in the elderly. For this reason, annual flu vaccines are very important for seniors.

Don’t Delay Treatment

According to Karen Zurick, RN, Director of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish Extended Care, a skilled nursing home community in Clayton, MO, senior adults should not self-diagnose before seeking treatment.

“If you are not feeling well–which may or may not include all or part of the symptoms you read about–don’t waste time trying to decide if you have the flu, pneumonia, or a cold,” Zurick says. “Pneumonia can move fast. You may find yourself in a life-threatening situation in a just a few hours.”

How to Prevent Pneumonia

Topping Zurick’s list of pneumonia prevention strategies is frequent handwashing, especially during flu season. “Carry hand gel in your car or purse, or antiseptic wipes in your pockets,” she suggests. “Use them before and after your hands come in contact with items other people have touched, like shopping cart handles or door handles in public places. If you attend a church where shaking hands is a standard practice, use gel or wipes quickly after making contact with another person, and always sanitize your hands before you eat.”

Second on her list of activities to help prevent pneumonia is receiving a vaccination. For people 65 and older, high-dose flu vaccines that provide added protection are now available. Pneumonia vaccinations are not annual, and they now come in pairs. A Prevnar 23, followed by a Prevnar 13 vaccination one year later, are designed to provide lifelong protection.

Another preventive measure Zurick strongly suggests is not to smoke, or to quit if you are a smoker. “Smoking damages lung tissue, which makes you more susceptible to pneumonia,” she says.

Seniors should maintain or improve their overall health. Exercise, eat nutritious food, stay hydrated, and get adequate rest to help prevent pneumonia.

Also, only drink alcohol in moderation. “People who consume too much alcohol tend to neglect their diet and be subject to malnutrition, which weakens their body’s defenses,” Zurick says.

Stress and depression management are also important as mental and emotional health are factors in preventing illnesses, including pneumonia.

When families visit their senior loved ones, they should be sure that they are not ill. Sickness within the family can easily be transferred to a senior adult who is less able to successfully combat it. Communicating through phone calls, e-mails, and texts are better than exposing the senior to illness as a result of an in-person visit.

Finally, if a flu epidemic strikes your community, Zurick suggests limiting or temporarily suspending participation in public events where large numbers of people are gathered—church, theatres, community events, etc.

Who is Most Susceptible?

Senior adults who have a chronic illness or have received treatments that have weakened their immune system, should be extremely vigilant in protecting themselves from the flu and pneumonia.

The list would include people with:

Zurick warns that cancer patients who have been treated with immunosuppressive therapy are particularly vulnerable.

Prevent Pneumonia for a Healthy Flu Season

Pneumonia can strike quickly and with deadly effects on the body. Practice steps to avoid it, don’t hesitate to seek medical help even if you are not sure you have contracted it, and practice good hygiene, healthy living, and limit your exposure.

Find more tips like this on Bethesda’s blog to stay healthy all year round!

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