Getting the flu and COVID-19 vaccine helps protect you from pneumonia caused by these viruses. And the pneumococcal vaccine — recommended for all people 65 years of age and over — prevents a common type of bacterial pneumonia that has a high death rate in the elderly.
Anytime you experience a new, persistent symptom, it’s important to let your healthcare provider know, experts say. Here are five signs that an infection may have spread to your lungs and turned into pneumonia:
1. Productive cough
Pneumonia causes the air sacs of your lungs to fill with fluid, so it’s almost always accompanied by a cough – usually productive, says Charles Bregier, MD, emergency physician and medical director of Novant Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. . You’re going to cough a lot of nasty things, ”he says. “Usually when you have pneumonia it will be one color: yellowish, greenish, or gray. ”
2. Fever (or very low body temperature)
Pneumonia is often associated with fever and chills, signs that your body is fighting infection, says Sarina Sahetya, MD, pulmonologist and intensivist at John’s Hopkins Medicine. But it is important to know that the absence of fever does not exclude it, especially in those 65 and over.
Sometimes older people with pneumonia actually develop a low body temperature – something below 97 degrees Fahrenheit – rather than a high body temperature. “It has to do with how your immune system responds to infection,” Sahetya explains. “In older people, who tend to have weaker immune systems or who are immunocompromised, instead of boosting the immune system, infection can actually cause low temperatures.”
3. Shortness of breath
When the air sacs in your lungs become infected, your body has to work harder to exchange air in and out of your lungs, Bregier says. You may have trouble catching your breath, wheezing, or feeling like you’re breathing faster than normal.
“You might notice that when you are sitting with a family member chatting, you really have a hard time speaking without shortness of breath,” he says. “Or just walking to the bathroom – the effort – can be difficult.” Such signs should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention, experts say.
4. Chest pain
Another symptom of a severe case of pneumonia is chest pain. Unlike the pain from a heart attack, chest pain from pneumonia is often described as “sharp or throbbing,” Sahetya says, and usually hurts more when you breathe deeply or cough. But don’t worry too much about distinguishing between the different types of chest pain; any type of new or persistent chest pain is reason enough to go to the emergency room, doctors say.
5. Dizziness or delirium
A more subtle symptom of pneumonia that is often seen in older people is a change in cognition or consciousness. “It’s a sign that the body is sick and it puts stress on their brain,” Sahetya says. “If someone comes to the hospital and says their loved one is confused… it’s a wake-up call for us to start looking for infection.”
How the infection can be treated – inside or outside the hospital
Pneumonia can get worse quickly, so it’s important to see a doctor right away if you develop any of the above symptoms, Bregier says.
Treatment depends on the cause of your pneumonia. If it is bacteria, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, either by mouth or intravenously. If it’s viral, the options are more limited, but your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug, a bronchial dilator to help bring air in and out, or a drug to break up mucus. COVID-19 pneumonia is also treated with steroids and monoclonal antibodies.
If your case is particularly serious, you may need to be hospitalized so that you can receive treatment with oxygen and other supports.
Doctors say that if you’re older and at greater risk, your best bet is to take precautions so you don’t get sick in the first place. Wash your hands frequently, wear a mask in indoor or crowded spaces, and – most importantly – get all the recommended vaccines.
“Vaccines keep you from getting sick or make it less severe if you do,” Sahetya explains. “The best defense is a good offense.”