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Symptoms of Pneumonia in the Elderly

How to Tell The Difference Btween a Cold and Pneumonia

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Updated April 11, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It seems like every year during the colder months, everyone is coughing and sneezing. This includes all people, from infants to the very elderly. Most adults dismiss their symptoms, saying, "It's just a cold." They expect to tough it out for a couple of days and be back to feeling fine within a week.

However, sometimes it is more than "just a cold," and the symptoms indicate that a person may have pneumonia. It is very important that older people get any of these symptoms checked out, as pneumonia can progress rapidly. It can also be much more dangerous for people with chronic diseases, such as lung or cardiac problems.

An exception to these symptoms can be the case of "walking pneumonia," during which a person does not exhibit typical symptoms of pneumonia. (To learn more about walking pneumonia, read the full article: Walking Pneumonia in Older Adults)

It should also be noted that older people tend to have fewer symptoms than younger people, meaning that the pneumonia can progress to a dangerous point before medical attention is sought.

What are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?

First a Cold, Then High Fever: It is true that most cases of pneumonia start out with the typical symptoms of a cold –- sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, even a low-grade fever. You may even have a mild cough. If, however, you develop a fever over 101 degrees F, you need to see a doctor as this may indicate that a bacterial infection is present, which could lead to pneumonia and/or bronchitis.

Chest Pain That Feels Worse With Deep Breaths: This may feel like aching or dull pressure under your breastbone, which hurts more if you cough or take a deep breath.

Muscle Aches: Often, people with pneumonia feel a general "malaise," which includes achy muscles and discomfort. There can also be joint pain.

Purple or "Dusky" Skin Color: This indicates that not enough oxygen is getting into the blood. In the case of pneumonia, the fluid in the lungs impairs function.

Headaches: The headache is often made worse by the action of coughing.

Shortness of Breath: This feels like not being able to get enough air. Often, this causes the person to gasp, even though they are not exerting themselves at all.

Clammy Skin: The skin will feel damp and cool to the touch. The person may be pale. The clamminess is caused by sweating.

Shaking Chills: Chills can be described as "feeling cold from the inside out." The person is unable to feel warm, regardless of the temperature in the room or how many blankets or clothes they have on. These chills can cause a person to shake so much that their teeth chatter. Some people refer to chills as "rigor."

Productive Cough: This means that sputum (a mixture of saliva, mucus and sometimes pus) is produced when coughing, as opposed to a dry, hacking cough. "Sputum" is also referred to by some as "phlegm."

Discolored or Bloody Sputum: Sputum can be clear, but it can also be yellow, green or have flecks of blood in it. The yellow or green color comes from leukocytes (white blood cells that indicate infection). Bloody sputum indicates a severe lung infection. All of these could point to pneumonia.

Bottom Line

Responding quickly when any of these symptoms are present in an older person may mean the difference between a hospital stay (or even death). Seeing a doc immediately is crucial -– don't be afraid of "wasting his time" or appearing to be a "hypochondriac." It is much better to make an unnecessary trip to the doctor than a prolonged trip to the hospital because you waited too long to get checked.

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