The Risks of Pneumonia in Geriatric Patients

Pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death among seniors.

There are two basic types of pneumonia, Community acquired pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia. Community acquired pneumonia is caught from other persons. It occurs among people of all ages living in the general population.

Aspiration pneumonia caused by inhalation of bacteria from the back of the throat, mouth or nose occurs because of an impaired swallow, leading to potential infection. This is common among geriatric patients, especially those who are in institutions, whose immune function and swallowing function are often compromised because of extreme age and preexisting medical conditions such as stroke.

The most common symptom of pneumonia is a cough that persists after five to ten days. Other symptoms can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, discomfort in the chest, lungs or upper abdomen, discolored sputum (green or bloody phlegm), and disorientation. “Pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose since x-rays are not always diagnostic,” explains Dr. Ava Pannullo, Medical Director at The Hospital at Hebrew Health Care. “That’s why geriatric doctors rely on clinical changes, either physical, functional or mental in an older patient’s status to signal that something may be wrong.”

Smokers, diabetics, kidney disease sufferers and those exposed to second hand smoke are at greater risk for lung infection because their local immune system is compromised. They are at greater risk for contracting pneumonia than the general population. For this reason Pneumococcal and influenza vaccines should be offered to these populations

The treatment for pneumonia is generally straightforward. Initially, antibiotics are administered to kill the bacteria. Breathing treatments and expectorants are also introduced to open up the airways, loosen phlegm and ultimately cough out the mucus that accompanies pneumonia. The treatment process typically lasts 10 to 14 days. Seniors with pneumonia in just one place in their lungs have a good chance of full recovery. The presence of pneumonia in several parts of the lungs is more severe and makes recovery more difficult. With advancing age the lung tissue becomes less elastic decreasing the lung’s ability to expand and contract. Osteoporosis with resulting deformity and curvature of the spine also affects breathing by impairing lung expansion.

Simple steps for preventing community acquired pneumonia include hand-washing and cleansing of often used surfaces; such as the phone, computer keypads, work surfaces, car dashboards etc. decreasing transmission of bacteria and getting a Pneumococcal vaccine, and an influenza vaccine from your physician. Aspiration pneumonia prevention is tougher and involves changing diet consistency along with teaching different swallowing maneuvers.

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