Caring for Seniors with Pneumonia and the Flu

Advice for families and caregivers

Pneumonia is the fourth leading cause of death among the elderly. Typically pneumonia occurs when a patient's immune system is weakened due to another illness, such as bronchitis or the flu, and many people develop it in the hospital. While ill, seniors will need support from a caregiver.

Q&A for Seniors and Pneumonia and the Flu
Is there anything I can do while my parent is hospitalized with pneumonia to help her recovery?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Even though your parent is in the hospital with nurses and doctors right there, you should keep a close eye on him or her. You know your parent better than they do, and if it seems to you that his or her condition is worsening, get help immediately.
  • If you feel that the treatments your parent is being given are not working within the time frame you were told to expect, talk to the doctor or nurse right away. Your vigilance can make a big difference.
  • Especially for the elderly, but really for all patients, it can help a great deal to have a family member or friend in the hospital with the patient 24 hours a day, to make sure he or she is doing well and to quickly demand care if the patient needs it. Ideally you will set up a rotating system of different people to be with the patient at different segments of the day.
  • Caregivers should make sure that all doctors and nurses who come in contact with your parent wash their hands before touching or administering to him or her.
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What danger signs should I be on the alert for when my parent has the flu?

In the elderly, pneumonia often develops when either the flu -- a virus that is infectious and appears in the winter and early spring -- or another upper respiratory infection progresses into it. People over 65 are at increased risk of developing pneumonia and those over 84 are at great risk of dying from complications from the flu.

  • Seek immediate medical attention if your parent has difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the abdomen or chest, confusion, abrupt dizziness and/or violent or continual vomiting.
  • Dehydration and a worsening of any other medical conditions, such as heart problems, emphysema or asthma, are also cause for alarm. Symptoms of dehydration in the elderly include poor skin elasticity (the skin, when pinched, does not return to its normal shape), as well as headache, dizziness, unusually dark urine or an inability to urinate, weakness, dry mouth and nose, and nausea and vomiting.

Since the elderly are at risk of having a flu progress into pneumonia, it is also helpful to know the warning signs for pneumonia.

  • Symptoms of bacterial pneumonia, which often appear suddenly, include: shaking chills, pain in the chest, shortness of breath, a high fever, sweating, and coughing up thick yellow or green phlegm.
  • Warning signs of viral pneumonia include: headache, fever, a dry cough that does not bring up phlegm, muscle pain and exhaustion.
  • Signs of more advanced viral pneumonia can include a cough that produces small amounts of white or clear phlegm.
  • Walking pneumonia, which is a milder form of pneumonia, usually produces flu-like symptoms but in much less severe form than other kinds of pneumonia, and is treated with antibiotics.
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How can I tell whether what my parent has is a cold or the flu?

Symptoms of flu include:

  • fever (usually high)
  • headache
  • extreme tiredness
  • dry cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle aches

In general flu symptoms are similar to, but more intense than, those of a cold.

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What can I do to prevent my parent's flu from turning into pneumonia?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Once your parent develops the flu, it will be important to follow the doctor's orders, rest, drink a lot of fluids, and avoid alcohol and cigarettes. The more nutritious the fluids, the more helpful they will be, as they will help build up your parent's strength.
  • Talk to your doctor about influenza antiviral drugs that may shorten the flu's course.
  • If your parent hasn't already done so, he or she should get a pneumonia vaccine, which helps protect against 23 types of bacterial pneumonia.
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What can my parent do to avoid getting the flu, besides getting a flu shot?

Your parent can take a few precautions to avoid the flu:

  • Stay away from sick people, especially in enclosed small spaces, such as cars or elevators.
  • Wash his or her hands often.
  • Avoid touching his or her eyes, nose or mouth, which will help prevent any germs that may have been picked up through touch from entering the body in those locations.
  • Build up his or her immune system by getting lots of sleep, eating well (which means lots of fruits and vegetables, in addition to protein), managing stress levels and consuming enough fluids.
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Are there any supplements that could help my parent stay healthy and prevent pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a lung inflammation caused by an infection that is usually either viral or bacterial, but can sometimes also be caused by other organisms. Some studies have found that zinc supplements may help prevent pneumonia or keep it mild if it does occur. For more information, go to:

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My parent is being treated for her pneumonia at home. What can I do to help?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Give your parent plenty of fluids and make sure he or she rests, saving strength for recovery. Fluids help loosen secretions so that the patient can then bring up phlegm.
  • Try to get your parent to eat something that will build up his or her strength, such as lentil or chicken soup.
  • Don't let your parent do any chores until he or she gets stronger.
  • Give your parent aspirin or acetaminophen to control any fever.
  • Wash your hands before preparing your parent's food or touching him or her.
  • Make sure no visitors have colds or coughs.
  • Try propping your parent up in bed to see if that helps his or her breathing.
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My parent who has pneumonia worries that she'll never get better. How can I reassure her?

Feeling weak and ill can be depressing. Here are some things you can do that should make a difference:

  • Reassure your parent that he or she should get better soon.
  • Remind your parent how much he or she is loved and valued.
  • Make sure your parent is eating enough to get his or her energy back. Nutritious soups, such as chicken soup, which supplies both fluids and vitamins, would be helpful.
  • If your parent doesn't recover as soon as expected, speak with his or her doctor about trying another treatment. And tell the doctor that your parent seems depressed to see if the doctor recommends treating it. Treating the depression might also help your parent recover from the pneumonia.
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How soon should my parent who has pneumonia feel better?

With treatment, most patients will improve within two weeks. If your parent isn't better in that time frame, speak to the doctor about trying another form of treatment. Elderly or debilitated patients who fail to respond to treatment may die from respiratory failure.

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My parent was told that stopping smoking will hasten recovery from pneumonia. Is that true?

Most people with pneumonia and the flu are told to stop smoking, as it can weaken their lungs and make them more prone to infections. Smoking can also interfere with treatments for pneumonia and the flu.

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How do I go about finding a caregiver for my parent who developed pneumonia after having the flu? is a website that lists people throughout the United States who provide care to seniors, includes photos and descriptions of their experience, and does free background checks for members. You can search by zip code. For specific listings, go to

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Other resources for Seniors and Pneumonia and the Flu

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