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Pneumonia in Older Adults: Symptoms, Risks, Prevention

Your Health / Conditions / Infections & Infectious Diseases / Pneumonia in Older Adults: Symptoms, Risks, Prevention​​​​​​​

Published on Aug 05, 2020
Authored by Feisia Dam, BPharm(Hons)


While we gain wisdom with age, unfortunately, the sneaky germs that cause pneumonia get an unfair advantage in older adults. This lung infection is more likely to land them in hospital. Telltale signs such as cough and fever aren't always present in older adults. While several germs cause pneumonia, like coronavirus and influenza, one of the most common is pneumococcal pneumonia. If you have parents 70 years and older, or are a senior yourself, there are things you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. Read below to learn more about the symptoms, why this age group is at greater peril and what you can do to reduce the spread.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Pneumonia?

The common symptoms of pneumonia such as fever, cough and chills don't always appear in older and frail people. Warning signs can be quite non-specific and difficult to self-diagnose for some people. They include:

  • Confusion or worsening confusion.
  • Falls
  • Reduced appetite
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Tiredness
  • Rapid breathing

When to See the Doctor

Pneumonia can progress quickly and cause complications, especially among older people. So, it is vital to get medical attention as soon as you think you, or your loved one may have pneumonia.

Older adults are over four times more likely to be hospitalised with pneumococcal pneumonia than younger adults.

Why are Seniors at Higher Risk of Developing Pneumonia?

There are several reasons why people 70 years and older are more likely to develop pneumonia:

  • ​​​​​​​Weaker immune system. As we age, our immune defense system doesn't work at 100%. Leaving you more vulnerable to infection.
  • Ineffective ability to cough out germs. One of the ways our body gets rid of harmful germs in our airways is by trapping them in mucous and coughing it out. Inability to do this well can increase the chance of harmful germs reaching the lungs.
  • Higher likelihood of having other health conditions that make you more vulnerable. Certain conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, diabetes, conditions that weaken your immune system and some forms of cancer have shown to increase a person's risk.

Complete the Pneumonia Risk Quiz to help understand your risk and start a conversation with your doctor.

You can also learn about the particular germs that cause pneumonia and how they spread here.

How is Pneumonia Diagnosed?

The doctor will listen to the lungs for crackling or other abnormal sounds. If these are present, they may request a few other tests to confirm their diagnosis. These include:

  • Chest X-ray to see what the lungs look like
  • A blood test to check for signs of infection
  • Sputum test to check what germ is present

How Long Does It Take To Get Better?

For younger adults, symptoms can begin improving days after starting treatment. The challenge for older adults is that full recovery can take weeks or months.


Pneumonia can sometimes lead to severe complications in the older adults.

Tissues in your body (especially in your heart and brain) might not receive the oxygen they need. Pneumonia can lead to:

  • fluid or pus buildup around the lungs
  • bacteraemia (infection in the blood)
  • worsening heart failure, arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm) and heart attack.
  • It may even lead to death.
It is vital to do everything you can to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.

7 Things You Can Do To Protect Your Health

Here are seven things that you can do to help protect your health:

  1. Avoid contact with people who are ill; if you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.
  2. Wash your hands regularly; wipe down frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs.
  3. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your arm sleeve (instead of your hands).
  4. Limit exposure to cigarette smoke; stop smoking (if you smoke).
  5. Keep up with your health visits.
  6. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise to keep your immune system strong
  7. Talk to the doctor or nurse about prevention options, including vaccination.
If you think that you or your loved ones are at increased risk for pneumonia, talk to your doctor or nurse about prevention options, including vaccination


  1. Mandell LA, Wunderink R. Pneumonia. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, et al. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Accessed June 11, 2020.
  2. Mandell LA, Wunderink R. Pneumococcal Disease. In: Jameson J, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, et al. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Accessed June 11, 2020.
  3. Stupka JE, Mortenson EM, Anzueto A, et al. Community-acquired pneumonia in elderly patients. Aging health. 2009 ; 5(6): 763–774.
  4. Dey A, Wang H, Beard F, et al. Summary of national surveillance data on vaccine preventable diseases in Australia 2012-2015. Commun Dis Intel 2019;43
  5. Faverio P, Aliberti S, Bellelli G, et al. The management of community-acquired pneumonia in the elderly. Eur J Intern Med. 2014 April ; 25(4): 312–319

Last reviewed: 8/10/2019

External Resources

Lung Foundation Australia - Pneumonia
- ​​​​​​​​​​​Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand

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