Pneumonia in the Elderly: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention

According to research, about 7% of the world’s population is affected by pneumonia every year, resulting in about 4 million deaths each year. This row of death mostly includes premature youngsters and elders. William Osler, a Canadian physician, regarded pneumonia as ‘the captain of the men of death’ in the 19th century. Later in the 20th century, with the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics, the survival rate of people with pneumonia was increased. The question is, is pneumonia a contagious disease, or it is caused by the lack of defense system (immune system) of the body, or it varies depending on genetics?

In this article, we will discuss pneumonia, its symptoms, its causes, and how a senior can prevent it. So, without any further ado, let’s get started.

What is Pneumonia?

Respiratory organ (lungs) have a significant role in providing oxygen to the blood, and this process is carried by small air sacs called alveoli, which are present in the lungs. Alveoli cannot hold fluid; they are only capable of holding air— when fluid enters in them, it causes malfunctioning of lungs. 

Pneumonia affects alveoli primarily, resulting in an inflammatory condition, which may lead to severe damage. 

One of the major risks in elders is COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). COPD is characterized by long term breathing problems and poor airflow, mainly due to cough and sputum (phlegm/mucus) production. 

The Complexity of Understanding Causes

Among the affected people, mostly are infants or adults and seniors with COPD condition. Pneumonia is itself complex in a way due to its large number of causes and symptoms. Sometimes it gets difficult to characterize a person having influenza and pneumonia. Adults over 65 age are considered mostly to be affected by it due to COPD, contagious contact or severe smoking history.

Fungi, viruses and allergic response to pollen or grains can also cause pneumonia. In fact, any fluid that enters the lungs and causes inflammation results in pneumonia (either its water or any liquid).


Following is the list of symptoms/signs shown by a person suffering from pneumonia:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Fever
  • Chills and influenza 
  • Weakness of the immune system
  • Body weakness
  • Sputum (phlegm) 
  • Strong cough
  • Pale/blue fingertips and toes

Levels of Pneumonia

Pneumonia can either be mild or severe in adults. The mild type of pneumonia is contagious and is caused by contact of the body with an unhealthy environment or weather conditions. In physiology, it is also called ‘walking pneumonia’. Severe pneumonia can lead even to hospitalization and oxygen therapy. 

Mainly, people think of pneumonia as inflammation in the lungs due to influenza (flu), which is a fundamental concept and isn’t totally correct. 

Bacterial Pneumonia

It is the simplest form of bacteria that is an inflammation of the lungs due to bacterial infection. It can occur in either both lungs, one lung, or one part of the lung. The major cause of bacterial pneumonia is a pneumococcal disease that is caused by Streptococcus pneumonia.

Fungal Pneumonia

This one is the most critical stage, which is mostly caused by extreme production of sputum (phlegm) in the body. It is an infection of the lungs by fungi, which can be caused due to opportunistic or endemic fungi or a combination of both. 

Risk Factors

The immune system of the body gets weak as a person grows older and results in the cause of several diseases on a mild and severe level. In old age, risk factors of pneumonia include:

  • Heart diseases

Diseases related to the heart are the most common in older adults. They rapidly show symptoms due to weak body and less defensive immune system. In other words, older people with smoking habits and severe health conditions are probably at more risk of being affected by pneumonia. 

  • Strong cough

Cough is a basic way to remove infectious elements from the lungs, precisely the bacterial elements. Older people have difficulty in coughing when it comes to strong cough. They mainly suffer from a stroke or inability to expel the infection, resulting in pneumonia. 

Cough is one reliable way to remove the infection from the lungs to resist pneumonia. Therefore extra care is required for elders with the inability of strong cough. 

  • Contagious illness

When it comes to diagnosing pneumonia on a worldwide scale, people only look for influenza as the main reason which is not true. Any contact with an unhealthy environment can also cause pneumonia. In fact, anything that causes inflammation of lungs either its pollen spores present at home or fluid like water is a contagious lead to pneumonia. For the people of old age, a healthy and clean environment is required to prevent any risk factor. 

  • Unhealthy environment

A clean environment is a fundamental point to prevent any disease. Seniors should be given extra care regarding their surroundings. If they are living at home, spores and pollen should be removed from the home. If they show symptoms of cough or flu, it doesn’t directly point to pneumonia. Instead, it means that they should be taken care of on extra hygiene level by ensuring that the surrounding environment is bacteria-free. 

  • Weakness

The weakness of the immune system and improper functionality of body organs lead to a fragile body. Due to a weak body, lungs cannot provide oxygen to specific parts, especially in old age. It may cause infections at high rate showing symptoms of pale or blue fingertips and toes. 

  • Fever and influenza

Elders over 65 age are more reactive to chills and low temperature. Pneumonia can also be caused due to low body temperature accompanied by influenza.


Although it is quite difficult to ensure 100% guaranteed results for the cure of pneumonia, one can take certain necessary steps to prevent it. Elders over the age of 65 have major risks of pneumonia due to inflammation in the upper and lower respiratory system, which should be taken extra care of.

Here are some things one can consider to prevent/treat pneumonia in the elderly:

  • Vaccination

Getting sick in the first place is due to the lack of a strong defense system of the body. When a person shows symptoms like flu and cough, he should be vaccinated right away to prevent the illness and infection from spreading, specifically in elder age.

  • Hand Washing and Dental Hygiene

One should wash his hands frequently or use antibacterial sanitizers in order to prevent the spread of infection. This rule is for both the home environment and work routine. 

On the other hand, Pneumonia infections can also occur around infected teeth – an individual, especially a senior, should pay more attention on dental work to prevent pneumonia.

  • Face masks

While traveling or going to any place outside, one should wear a medicated face mask to prevent the inhalation of infectious elements.

  • Clean home

By just keeping your home clean, you can prevent different types of illnesses or infections. Your home should be mold spores-free and cleaned daily. If someone falls ill or shows symptoms of pneumonia, the best way to prevent it is getting vaccinated and a chest x-ray.

  • Medication

We know that this is a common practice, and everyone knows it, but still, it is important to remember that one should never ignore medicine if he wants to treat pneumonia. Proper medication should be taken as prescribed if an elder is diagnosed by a doctor of having an inflammatory condition in the lungs.

  • Rest

Elders who are discharged or being treated at home should be given proper rest. The body should be kept hydrated and clean environment is a fundamental requirement. 


The percentage of people getting affected by pneumonia every year around the globe is rising due to several factors that are also discussed above. Currently, there is no 100% cure for this inflammatory disease, but it can be prevented by taking certain necessary measures that we have mentioned in the article. The best way is to keep a hygienic environment, maintaining a diet for a balanced immune system and taking precautionary measures like wearing medicated masks, getting checked up and vaccinated on time. 

If you have a senior at home who isn’t well and needs the right home care, you should check out our article on Home Care for the Elderly in Their Own Homes. Stay healthy!