Pneumonia in Seniors

Pneumonia is a common respiratory infection that affects the lungs. For most individuals, germs that enter the respiratory system are filtered out through the body’s natural defense system. However, if the body’s defense system is impaired, germs can travel down the respiratory tract and infect the lungs. When this occurs, it causes the small air sacs deep in the lungs to become inflamed and fill up with fluid or pus making it difficult to breathe.
sick elder woman with senior pneumonia

What Causes Pneumonia in Seniors?

Anyone can contract pneumonia but is most seen in individuals with a compromised immune system such as the elderly and those with underlying chronic conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes. Pneumonia can be caused by different bacteria, viruses, or fungi but the most common causes of pneumonia are:
  • Bacterial Infections: The most common cause of bacterial pneumonia is Streptococcus pneumoniae. Other bacteria, such as Haemophilus influenzae and Staphylococcus aureus, can also cause the infection.
  • Viral Infections: Influenza viruses (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are common viral causes of pneumonia, especially in children.
  • Fungal Infections: Fungal pneumonia is rare but can occur in individuals with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or individuals undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Aspiration: Inhaled food, liquids, saliva, or vomit can enter the lungs, leading to aspiration pneumonia. This can happen when a person has difficulty swallowing or experiences loss of consciousness.
elder man sitting on his couch while sneezing and suffering from pnemonia in seniors

Risk Factors of Pneumonia in Seniors

Risk factors that impair an individual’s immune system make them more likely to develop pneumonia and include:
  • Individuals 65 and older have a higher risk for pneumonia due to a weakened immune system making it difficult to fight off infection.
  • Chronic underlying lung disease such as Asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis makes the lungs more vulnerable to infections.
  • Certain chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, HIV/AIDs, or cancer can cause a weakened immune system making the body more susceptible to infection.
  •  Conditions that compromise the ability to swallow such as after a stroke, dementia or Parkinson’s disease can result in aspiration of food or saliva into the lungs that may then become infected.
  • Cigarette smoke can damage the lung tissues making them more vulnerable to infections.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse not only weakens the immune system but can also result in aspiration if an individual becomes over sedated by the drug or alcohol.
older woman sitting on her couch while feeling ill and suffering from pnemonia in seniors

Common Symptoms of Pneumonia in Seniors

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia in seniors can vary depending on the cause and severity of the infection. Common symptoms of pneumonia in seniors include:
  • Cough: A persistent cough that may produce phlegm or pus.
  • Fever: High body temperature accompanied by chills and sweating.
  • Shortness of Breath: Difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, or feeling breathless during exertion.
  • Chest Pain: Sharp or stabbing chest pain that worsens with deep breathing or coughing.
  • Fatigue and Weakness: Feeling excessively tired and weak, often accompanied by loss of appetite.
  • Confusion: Pneumonia can cause confusion, especially in older individuals.
In addition to the symptoms mentioned, individuals who are at great risk for pneumonia may present with more severe symptoms including:
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood
  • Confusion or difficulty to arouse
  • Blueish tone to skin and lips
  • Rapid shallow breathing

How are You Diagnosed with Pneumonia?

Diagnosis of pneumonia begins with a visit with a healthcare provider to assess symptoms and risk factors for pneumonia. They will also conduct a physical exam which includes listening to lung sounds and checking oxygen saturation with an oximeter. Some providers can make a diagnosis of pneumonia without any additional testing, however additional tests may be ordered if needed including te following.


Chest X-Ray

Imaging of the lungs to look for location and extent of infection in the lungs.


Sputum Test

A sample of an individual’s sputum is assessed in a lab to identify the virus, bacteria or fungi causing the infection.


Blood Tests

If there is concern of more severe infection, blood tests including a complete blood count, metabolic panel and blood cultures may be done to assess the extent of infection and determine if it has spread into the blood.

Treatment for Pneumonia in Senior Citizens

Treatment of pneumonia in senior citizens is based on the severity of symptoms and associated risk factors. Those with mild symptoms and low risk for severe illness can be treated at home with antibiotics. Supportive measures in senior healthcare are used to manage symptoms including the following.


If pneumonia is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are prescribed to target the specific bacterial strain. It is crucial to complete the full course of antibiotics as directed by the healthcare provider.

Antiviral Medications

When the cause is viral pneumonia (e.g., influenza), antiviral medications may be prescribed to help manage symptoms and reduce the severity of the infection.

Antifungal Medications

In cases of fungal pneumonia, antifungal medications may be used to treat the underlying infection.

Supportive Care

It is essential to stay well-hydrated, rest, and manage symptoms such as fever and pain with over-the-counter medications as recommended by a healthcare professional.

Care for Pneumonia in Seniors at Greater Good Health

At Greater Good Health, we understand the unique health needs of seniors, especially when it comes to conditions like pneumonia. Our integrated approach combines top-notch treatment for pneumonia with specialized senior primary care services, proactive preventive care, and expert management of chronic conditions. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.
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