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Pneumonia can be deadly, especially for seniors

When considering major threats and complications to your health, pneumonia most likely does not immediately come to mind. Pneumonia can strike independently, typically during the winter or flu season; however, it is more likely to occur as a complication of another illness, often times, the flu. Pneumonia also can be a complication of other illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or even alcoholism and is the fifth leading cause of death for older Americans.

Pneumonia is an infection of one or both lungs. The cause can be bacterial, viral or fungal and is spread by breathing infected droplets from the air, similar to a cold or flu. In addition, bacteria or viruses that normally live in the nose, mouth or throat may get aspirated into the lungs. Under normal conditions, these organisms are typically coughed out or eliminated by the immune system; however, the body’s natural protective defense can be diminished by immune system deficiencies or swallowing difficulties.

When the immune system is weakened by another disease, the organisms have an opportunity to establish themselves in the lungs, reproducing rapidly and causing inflammation that clogs the lungs with infectious fluid. Without antibiotics, the disease process can quickly get out of hand, as it often did in the first half of the 20th century. Even today, a half million Americans are admitted to the hospital each year because of pneumonia, and nearly 5 percent of these lose their life to this infection.

After age 65 years, risk factors significantly increase; therefore seniors must be alert and aware of the signs of pneumonia and seek treatment promptly. Take special notice of a cough that produces greenish or yellow sputum; this is a major symptom; Coughs are common with less severe respiratory illnesses as well. Other symptoms such as chills, fever (sometimes as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit), clammy skin, headache, loss of appetite and an overall achy feeling are common to both pneumonia and the flu; it is common for the flu or a bad cold to develop into pneumonia.

When an infection occurs in certain areas of the lung, the common symptom may be shortness of breath more than coughing and skin may have a bluish or purplish tint. Chest pain that occurs with pneumonia is sharp and stabbing and made worse by coughing, sneezing or deep breaths, also known as pleuritic chest pain that initiates from the surface of the lung where pain fibers are contained. Breathing with pneumonia is course and is often accompanied by crackling sounds detected by a stethoscope. A person with these signs requires medical attention.

Those diagnosed with pneumonia are encouraged to get up from time to time and walk around or sit in a chair. Lying down in a bed makes it nearly impossible to maintain the deep breathing that the lungs need to remove the inflammation. The upright position makes it easier to expand the lungs and cough to clear them.

The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for those age 65 and older. Since pneumonia often develops as a complication of the flu, seniors are also encouraged to receive an annual flu vaccine.

Pneumonia is the major cause of flu-related death in those older than 65; the flu vaccine provides added protection from severe complications such as pneumonia. Studies have found that those older than 65 who receive the flu vaccine are less likely to be admitted to the hospital for either pneumonia or congestive heart failure.

Always remember that the best protection against pneumonia is keeping all chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension under control. Pneumonia by itself is not very contagious; however, as a complication of the flu or other serious illnesses, pneumonia can be deadly. Be sure to know the symptoms and take preventative action.

To Your Health is written by the staff of Boulder City Hospital. For more information, call 702-293-4111, ext. 576, or visit bouldercityhospital.org.

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