Pneumonia is a relatively common disease in Ireland, affecting 11 out of every 1,000 adults every year, mostly in the colder months. While we often associate it with those who already have lung conditions, it is actually a significant risk for anyone with a weaker immune system – including babies, young children, and adults aged 60 or over.
What is Pneumonia?
Rather than comprising one disease, pneumonia is actually a blanket term used to describe a category of lung infections, which can either be caused by a virus or bacteria.
Symptoms can include having a high fever, feeling extremely tired, headache, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and chills/trembling.
Death from pneumonia is rare in the general population, but higher in the elderly. According to the World Health Organisation, it kills more children than any other illness.
Why Are Older People So Vulnerable to Pneumonia?
There are many reasons why older people can be more prone to developing pneumonia, especially if they live in a shared care facility. Pneumonia can be spread in the same way a cold or flu can, and in the cases of seniors, chronic diseases can weaken the immune system, as can general aging.
Our muscular system changes when we grow old, too; our respiratory muscles grow weaker, and our cough reflex declines in functionality. Moreover, many smokers are aged over 65, which is bad news in terms of staving off lung infections.
How Can We Prevent Pneumonia in Older People?
Any older person showing signs of pneumonia should be treated immediately. To obtain a diagnosis, blood work and a chest X-ray are normally prescribed.
When oxygen levels are low and do not improve sufficiently with the use of an oxygen machine for a set number or minutes, hospitalisation may be necessary. Although hospitalisation can be depressing for seniors, it is key in that medication often needs to be administered intravenously, and oxygen machines and other useful equipment are on hand.
The best way to approach pneumonia, is through prevention. Within nursing homes, hygiene should be encouraged – protocol can include frequent washing of hands, especially before touching food or shared items.
Seniors who smoke should be given the opportunity to quit under supervision; smoking cessation not only lowers the likelihood of developing pneumonia, but also lowers the risk of heart disease and many types of cancer, including bladder, lung, liver, mouth, stomach, pancreatic and various other types of cancer.
Older people face a higher risk of developing pneumonia than those with stronger immune systems, a risk that increases when accommodation is shared. Awareness of signs and symptoms is vital among caretakers and family of seniors, as is the adoption of a preventive stance against pneumonia.
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