Don't Mess with Pneumonia
Pneumonia, an acute infection of the lungs, can affect people of all ages. And in older adults who are at greater risk it can be especially troublesome--even life-threatening--if untreated.
How do you know it’s pneumonia?
A productive cough (one that produces mucus) and difficult breathing are the most common symptom of pneumonia. These are often accompanied by chest pain (caused by deep breathing or coughing), chills, and sometimes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. An attendant fever, especially in seniors, can warn of a serious infection. There’s typically a quick onset with pneumonia: you may be feeling a little under the weather, and suddenly you’re really sick.
Pneumonia can be either viral (more common in younger people) or bacterial (more common in seniors). People who smoke, have poor hygiene or poor nutrition, have not been vaccinated, or have an underlying lung disease (such as COPD) are at greater risk for contracting pneumonia. Those with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias are also at greater risk and may not get the care they need to recover well.
If you have pneumonia, or think you might, you should make an appointment to see your primary care provider right away. We will most likely take a chest x-ray to look for fluid in the lungs and prescribe an antibiotic to go after the infection. We don’t hesitate to treat the infection aggressively in seniors because it really can be very serious.
In addition to the antibiotic, it is helpful to take Tylenol for fever. If you have an underlying lung disease, frequent use of your inhalers or nebulizer treatments will be critical. And, it’s essential to drink plenty of fluids—this will keep the body hydrated and help it thin mucus in the lungs for easier expulsion. Good nutrition, especially high-quality protein, can help with the healing process and boost your immune system.
Now, many antibiotics can cause an unpleasant side effect: diarrhea. As a general rule, I prescribe a probiotic, such as acidophilus (found in yogurts and available as an over-the-counter supplement), along with antibiotics. Probiotics will protect the intestinal flora and defend against a gastrointestinal infection taking hold. This is a simple measure that can prevent great discomfort.
People with pneumonia are contagious, usually until they’ve been on the right antibiotic for about 24 hours. Small children and those with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible to catching pneumonia and should avoid contact. The very best thing you can do to prevent getting sick is to practice good hygiene--wash your hands frequently!
If you are over 65 years old and have a fever over 100° with shortness of breath and a productive cough, you should go to the emergency room right away. The fever is a sign that your body is fighting a progressed bacterial infection and it’s not a good idea to wait even a few hours to treat it. You may need hydration and assistance to open your lungs to free breathing.
Don’t’ mess with pneumonia. The quicker you treat it, the quicker you’re likely to feel better!