Pneumonia is a well-known word with many unknowns about it. Does having a cough mean pneumonia? Why are elders more susceptible to it than younger adults? Is pneumonia contagious, especially in the elderly? Discovering the answers to your questions about pneumonia can help you prevent this illness, and you’ll be better equipped to handle pneumonia for yourself and for elderly loved ones.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. More than a single, simple illness, though, pneumonia is actually a term used to describe a category of lung infections caused by different organisms. When someone has pneumonia, there is a problem somewhere in one or both lungs that causes symptoms of feeling tired, weak, and sometimes very ill.
We need oxygen, nitrogen, and other gasses to live, and it’s the lungs that take these in. If the lungs aren’t operating at peak performance, we suffer. In extreme cases, and especially in high-risk populations like the elderly, it can be fatal.
Many people ask “Can you die from pneumonia?” You can die from pneumonia; however, fatalities from these lung infections are relatively rare. Every year, between two- and three million people develop pneumonia, and approximately 60,000 (or two- three percent) die. Among the elderly, though, the mortality rate is higher. For those over age 65, the death rates from pneumonia can range from 10 to 30 percent, according to a National Institute of Health article.
The risk of death from pneumonia is something to be aware of. Because of their heightened risk of developing pneumonia as well as complications, some people over the age of 65 consider naming someone as their durable power of attorney (What is a durable power of attorney?).
Why are Elders at High Risk for Pneumonia?
People aged 65 and older contract pneumonia at a higher rate than those under the age of 65. According to a study published in Aging Health and the National Institute of Health, “The actual incidence of pneumonia in the elderly is four-times that of younger populations.”
Why are elders named more susceptible to get pneumonia? According to the same NIH study, there are multiple factors that cause pneumonia risk to increase with age:
- Health in general declines with age. The elderly are likely to have multiple ailments or chronic diseases at once. This weakens the immune system, making someone more vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections, including pneumonia.
- Systems in the body undergo physiological changes. The lungs lose elasticity, and overall respiratory muscle strength declines. Air increasingly becomes trapped in the lungs.
- The cough reflex lessens with age, and the mucociliary clearance function decreases as well. Both coughing and the workings of the mucous and fine hairs (cilia) within the bronchial tubes help viruses and bacteria leave the lungs. When these work less efficiently, germs remain trapped, increasing the risk of pneumonia.
- Many people aged 65 and over are smokers. Smoking is implicated as a culprit in nearly 33 percent of community-acquired (as opposed to hospital-acquired) pneumonia cases in the elderly.
As we age, we become increasingly susceptible to developing pneumonia when we’re exposed to viral or bacterial infections. The symptoms of pneumonia that we experience can make us feel miserable.
Symptoms of Pneumonia
Perhaps you’re familiar with the infamous pneumonia cough. A seemingly constant, rattling cough that produces phlegm is one of the hallmarks of pneumonia. Pneumonia is, after all, a lung infection, and we cough when our lungs are irritated and unwell.
A cough by itself typically doesn’t mean pneumonia. So how do you know when you have pneumonia? There are distinct symptoms you might experience if you have pneumonia. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, pneumonia symptoms for adults include:
- Suddenly feeling worse after a cold or flu
- Cough with phlegm
- Shortness of breath with normal activity
- Chest pain with breathing and/or coughing
- Chills and shaking
- High fever (approximately 102 degrees Fahrenheit)
Less common symptoms can include:
Elder adults might actually experience fewer symptoms than their younger counterparts. For adults over the age of 65, symptoms can also be different. In addition to watching for the above symptoms, be on alert for
- A body temperature that is lower than normal
- A sudden change in mental state/awareness
Complicating matters even more, the elderly may experience milder symptoms than younger adults. The risk with milder symptoms is that an elderly person with pneumonia may not initially appear ill which means that treatment could be delayed and become more difficult.
Types of Pneumonia
As mentioned, pneumonia is actually a category of lung infections. There are various types of pneumonia.
Pneumonia can be categorized by its cause. It can arise from a fungal infection or from a parasite. More commonly, though pneumonia is caused by bacteria or viruses.
- Bacterial pneumonia is caused by bacteria. There are numerous types of bacteria that can cause pneumonia.
- Viral pneumonia can be caused by viruses that are specific to the respiratory system. Alternately, pneumonia can be caused by viruses such as the ones that cause colds and flus.
There are other types of pneumonia, too. These can have any of the above causes.
- Bronchial pneumonia, also known as bronchopneumonia or lobular pneumonia, involves inflammation in the bronchi, the tubes that feed air into the lungs.
- Lobar pneumonia is an infection of one or more of the lobes of the lungs. The right lung has three lobes and the left has two, leaving us with five lobes that could be infected with pneumonia.
- Double pneumonia refers to any type of pneumonia infection that occurs in both lungs at once.
Regardless of the specific type, pneumonia can be miserable and, for certain people such as the elderly, risky. It makes sense to want to avoid it. To know how to avoid it, it’s helpful to know how you get it.
Is Pneumonia Contagious?
Wondering whether it is contagious is an important question that will help keep your lungs healthy. The answer depends on who you ask or on the websites you search. Some claim that it’s not contagious while others state emphatically that yes, pneumonia is very contagious. Which is it?
How would you respond if someone asked you if a cold were contagious? Chances are, you’d answer yes. Now imagine a different twist on colds being contagious. You are told that no, colds aren’t contagious. It’s the viruses that cause them that are contagious.
This reasoning is behind the varying answers to whether or not pneumonia is contagious. Viruses and bacteria can spread from one person to another. Sometimes if a virus or bacteria enters into the lungs, it can cause pneumonia. These germs can be spread from person to person, and they can lead to the development of pneumonia.
So how do you get pneumonia? Pneumonia-causing viruses and bacteria can spread in various ways:
- An uncovered cough or sneeze
- Shared cups, silverware, and other things that touch the mouth
- Touching a contaminated object and then your mouth, nose, or eyes
- Insufficient handwashing
Pneumonia typically begins when someone inhales airborne viruses or bacteria. The germs settle directly into the lungs and take hold to cause infection. As the above list indicates, sometimes viruses and bacteria aren’t airborne but instead work their way to the lungs from somewhere else in the body through the bloodstream.
Whether you say that pneumonia is contagious or that the germs that cause pneumonia are contagious, the infection spreads from person to person. Someone can transmit active germs until she’s been fever-free for several days. What about the elderly who might not develop a fever? They’re still contagious, but it’s possible that no one knows it.
Treatments for Pneumonia
Pneumonia is nothing to mess with, especially if you’re in a high-risk population like the elderly. It can be serious, but it’s also treatable.
Treatment varies with the cause. Bacterial pneumonia requires antibiotics, whereas viral pneumonia is mainly treated with lots of rest and fluids. Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are often suggested by doctors in order to reduce symptoms and ease discomfort. In severe cases, hospitalization may be needed for more intense delivery of fluids, pneumonia antibiotics, and oxygen.
Just how long does pneumonia last? Duration varies and depends on multiple factors:
- Cause. Viral pneumonia tends to be less severe than bacterial.
- Age. Pneumonia lasts longer in the elderly than it does in younger adults.
- Overall health. In people with other health conditions, pneumonia is harder to shake.
- When treatment starts. The sooner treatment starts, the sooner pneumonia ends.
It’s important to begin treatment as soon as possible. Symptoms of pneumonia can show up as early as the next day after exposure to as long as 10 days following exposure. In adults under the age of 65 who are otherwise healthy, pneumonia can disappear in two- to three weeks. In high-risk groups such as the elderly, it can last for six- to eight weeks or longer.
Regardless of your age, what can you do to prevent getting pneumonia? Follow these prevention guidelines to give your lungs the best chance at avoiding infection:
- Vaccinate. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone under the age of two and over the age of 65 be vaccinated. There are pneumonia vaccines, and there are influenza vaccines. Pneumonia vaccines help defend against specific pneumonia-causing bacteria. Influenza vaccines protect people from strains of influenza and the complications that include pneumonia.
- Wash hands well and often.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and stress relief.
- Quit smoking, or don’t start smoking.
Pneumonia is a lung infection to be taken seriously. High-risk populations like elder adults are especially vulnerable. With proper treatment and prevention, pneumonia’s symptoms can be lessened and the body can heal.