Pneumonia in Older Adults

Each year, about 1 million people are treated for pneumonia in the United States and approximately 50,000 die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs which inflames the air sacs resulting in serious illness in people of all ages. However, most of those affected are infants and older adults. Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can all cause pneumonia. There are over 30 different types of pneumonia.

People over 65 are especially vulnerable to becoming severely sick or dying from the infection. Due to the normal aging process along with underlying medical conditions or diseases, older adults often have weakened immune systems putting them at a disadvantage if pneumonia strikes.

Risk Factors for Pneumonia

CDC notes the following risk factors for pneumonia in adults:

  • Decreased immune function from chronic disease, illness or drugs;
  • Absence of a spleen or if  spleen is not working properly;
  • Chronic heart, lung (including asthma), liver, diabetes, or renal disease;
  • Cigarette smoking;
  • Fluid leaking from the brain or spine; and
  • Having a cochlear implant.


In addition, elderly adults can acquire pneumonia during or after a hospital stay. Seniors who live in group settings including assisted living communities, nursing homes, and memory care facilities also increase their exposure to acquiring the infection.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of pneumonia but in general include:

  • Weakness and fatigue;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Pain in the chest or ribs;
  • Fever and chills;
  • Cough, especially a wet one that produces phlegm;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • A lower-than-normal body temperature (common in seniors); and
  • Confusion or disorientation (common in seniors).


Prevention Tips and Treatment

For adults over 65 years and older, CDC recommends two pneumococcal vaccines:

  • Get a dose of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) first. Then get a dose of the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) at least 1 year later.
  • If you’ve already received PPSV23, get PCV13 at least 1 year after receipt of the most recent PPSV23 dose.
  • If you’ve already received a dose of PCV13 at a younger age, CDC does not recommend another dose.



  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick. Try not to visit someone in the hospital and limit contact with young children who often have coughs and colds.
  • Regularly wash your hands;
  • Clean surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen one or more times a day;
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow or sleeve (don’t use your hand to cover mouth);
  • Quit smoking and avoid contact with smokers;
  • Manage ongoing medical conditions.


Depending on the type of pneumonia, antibiotics are the first line of defense in treatment. Most adults usually recover within 2 – 3 weeks. However, seniors with medical conditions may need to be hospitalized for more specialized treatment including being placed on a respirator.



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