Jul 10, 2018

Why do people with dementia get pneumonia?

It is extremely worrying when someone with dementia develops pneumonia.

Pneumonia is more common among elderly people and affects those with weakened immune systems, such as those who are living with dementia.

A study of people living with dementia showed that as many as 40 per cent developed pneumonia over the 18-month study period.

The two types of pneumonia: viral and bacterial

There are two different types of pneumonia. Viral pneumonia is more common during the colder months, and can be caused by the same viruses that cause colds and flu.

Bacterial pneumonia is the more common, and serious, type of pneumonia – though it can usually be treated with antibiotics.

People living in nursing homes are at greater risk of contracting bacterial pneumonia. Worryingly, ‘hospital acquired’ pneumonia is more likely to be resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Risk factors that can cause those with dementia to develop pneumonia

Spending too much time lying in bed can make you more likely to develop pneumonia because it’s more difficult to cough and clear your lungs when you are lying down.

A type of pneumonia known as aspiration pneumonia is caused when food or liquid is inhaled and goes down the windpipe rather than the food pipe.

People with dementia often experience dysphagia – or problems with swallowing, and this can make it more likely they will breathe in food and drink and contract pneumonia.

Sadly, aspiration pneumonia is one of the most common causes of death amongst people living with dementia.

Symptoms of pneumonia: what to look out for

  • Chest pains that worsen when you take a deep breath or cough
  • A cough that produces thick yellow, green, or brownish phlegm
  • A cough that is worse at night
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating, shivering
  • A general feeling of poor health, and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

When diagnosing pneumonia, doctors will listen for crackling, rattling or rumbling sounds in the chest. X-rays, blood tests and sputum tests can identify the bacteria or virus causing the infection. With the correct treatment, pneumonia lasts for around a week.

How to prevent pneumonia

  • Flu vaccinations – there is a vaccine to protect against one of the most common forms of bacterial pneumonia, streptococcus pneumonia.
  • Good hygiene – wash your hands regularly and throw away used tissues immediately.
  • Keep moving and remain up and about where possible – this makes it easier for your lungs to expand and clear.
  • Limit alcohol – alcohol consumption increases the risk of contracting pneumonia, particularly for people with dementia who may have swallowing difficulties.
  • Quit smoking – smoking damages the lungs and therefore makes developing pneumonia more likely. Smoking decreases also decreases your body’s ability to fight pneumonia.
  • Eat a healthy diet – a study of more than 1000 women showed that those who ate diets rich in fruit and veg were less likely to develop upper respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
  • Get enough sleep to keep your body strong.
  • Stay away from people who are ill, particularly those with respiratory infections.

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