Pneumonia is an infection that affects one or both lungs. The disease can range from mild to severe and can be fatal. It is typically caused when bacteria, fungi or viruses enter the lungs and cause inflammation within air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. This inflammation may cause the alveoli to fill with fluid, resulting in difficult breathing and fever. Common causes of pneumonia include the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, and viruses such as influenza. During the winter season it increases in Bangladesh. Once an older person gets it other associated disease flares up.
It makes them more vulnerable to other problems. Because of its rapid onset and ability to spread to other parts of the body, pneumonia can be deadly. Even a milder case deals a severe blow to your immune system, which can turn an underlying condition like heart disease into a life-threatening malady. Since older people often have these additional problems, any sort of pneumonia can have dangerous complications.
The most common symptoms of pneumonia are cough, fever (which may be mild or high), shaking chills and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include confusion (especially in older people), excess sweating and clammy skin, headache, loss of appetite, low energy, fatigue and sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough.
There are several primary reasons why seniors are more susceptible to contracting pneumonia — they are frailer than younger people, seniors cannot clear secretions as well from their lungs. Those secretions can go down into bronchial tubes, causing the infection. Having weaker immune systems, seniors often cannot fight off an infection. A suppressed immune system may also be due to an organ or bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, or long-term steroid use. Senior health conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, chemotherapy, and HIV put seniors at a higher risk for pneumonia as well as, asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and bronchiectasis.
Chest X-rays and a blood test are how doctors can determine pneumonia. If it is bacterial pneumonia, it is usually treated with antibiotics. If the infection is viral, an anti-viral medicine may be prescribed. Patients may begin to feel better before finishing their medicine but should continue taking it as prescribed. If they stop too soon, pneumonia may return.
Doctors may give the patient fluids if he or she is dehydrated, oxygen if there is a breathing problem, along with pain relief and medical support. Milder cases of pneumonia can be cared for at home, but with severe cases, other underlying health conditions hospitalisation maybe required.
Flu predisposes older people to pneumonia, so the number of cases tends to spike during flu season, but the illness can occur at any time of the year. To help reduce the risk of pneumonia, get vaccinated — all people over age 65 should get an annual flu shot, as well as a pneumococcal vaccine, a one-time shot that protects against the pneumococcus, or pneumonia bacteria. Consult this with a physician first.
Practice good hygiene. Wash hands regularly or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Stop smoking. It damages the lungs’ natural defenses against respiratory infections. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet. Children in the senior’s family should get vaccinated.
Caregivers should also be vaccinated to avoid getting themselves sick and passing the illness to older members of their own families.
The writer is a gerontologist and a public health specialist.