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Senior Pulmonary Care: The Ultimate Guide

Lung problems are common in elderly people – but once a person is diagnosed, it can be difficult to know what to expect. This article will cover the different types of lung diseases, what symptoms could indicate a problem, and potential treatments your doctor may recommend. We’ll close with some brief wellness tips to help keep your lungs as healthy as possible.

Continue reading for more information!

Lung Disease Symptoms to Watch For

Anytime you deal with the following symptoms, it’s a scary experience. However, treatment is possible. Unfortunately, people often ignore the signs, dismissing them entirely or assuming they’re related to something else. Prevention and early detection are key – talk to someone if you’re experiencing the symptoms below. 

 

Be sure to let your doctor know if you experience the following:

  • Chest pain. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing, it could be a lung problem. Chest pain is generally caused by inflammation of the airways or lungs. 
  • Coughing. One of the most well-known symptoms of lung disease, coughing, can indicate bronchitis, COPD, pneumonia, COVID, cold, or flu. Coughs can be wet or dry, depending on the source, and can sometimes last for several weeks. 
  • Decreased ability to exercise. Since cardiovascular activity requires healthy lungs, you may feel shortness of breath while exercising and have a more challenging time finishing workouts. 
  • Difficulty breathing. If you have trouble catching your breath, it could mean bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, or other lung diseases. Shortness of breath can be caused by inflammation of the airways/lungs or the buildup of fluid in the chest (edema).
  • Persistent cough. A cough that doesn’t go away, even after weeks, is called a chronic cough. A chronic cough could point to COPD or bronchitis.
  • Presence of blood/mucus. If you’re coughing up blood or mucus, it means there’s something wrong with your lungs. Blood in your mucus indicates a severe lung problem, so speak to a doctor immediately if you see it. The color of your mucus is an indication of your lung health. White or clear mucus shows healthy lungs, while yellow or green mucus can mean that your lungs are infected. 

Types of Lung Issues Seniors Could Have

There are multiple lung disorders that seniors suffer from, including:

  • Asthma. Though most common in children, asthma can also affect seniors. Asthma causes chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing. This results from an inflamed airway (a combination of swollen lining and excess mucus). The airway becomes inflamed due to hypersensitivity to smoke, allergens, and cold air.
  • Bronchitis. Similar to asthma in the sense that inflammation is involved, inflamed bronchi cause bronchitis. It also results in coughing, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and wheezing. Bronchitis and emphysema often indicate COPD, and bronchitis can be acute or chronic. 
  • Cancer. Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer in men and women over 55, making it an essential consideration as a lung problem for seniors. It’s characterized by cough, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and weight loss. Lung cancer is caused by uncontrolled cells forming tumors by invading nearby tissues, sometimes metastasizing to other body parts. It can be caused by smoking, secondhand smoke, pollution, or asbestos.
  • COPD. Under the umbrella of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes breathing hard by stopping the airflow in the lungs, requiring an inhaler for even simple tasks (such as climbing a small flight of stairs). Those with COPD have been breathing in particles like dust, cigarette smoke, and gases for a long time. COPD patients are more likely to get heart disease, lung cancer, and other respiratory problems. Many COPD patients are elderly.
  • Emphysema. Those over 40 are more likely to have emphysema, a condition caused by long-term damage to the lungs’ air sacs (alveoli). Once the alveoli are damaged, they have a harder time retaining carbon dioxide, leading to less oxygen absorption, carbon dioxide buildup, and breathing problems. Emphysema can’t be cured, but its progression can be slowed with healthy practices. 
  • Pneumonia. Pneumonia is a condition that causes inflamed air sacs, filling them with fluid. It can cause fever, chills, trouble breathing, and coughs with phlegm and pus. Pneumonia often starts with a cold/flu, can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, and must be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include chest discomfort, fast breathing, shortness of breath, feverish/shivering feeling, and coughing up mucus. It must be treated promptly, as it can be deadly.
  • Pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema also involves fluid in the air sacs caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs. An edema can result from heart failure, pneumonia, drug or alcohol abuse, smoke inhalation, or strenuous activity. People at the age of 65 are most likely to experience edema. If not treated immediately, it can worsen and result in death, but the prognosis is good with the proper medical care.  
  • Tuberculosis. TB (Tuberculosis) is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria and is commonly found in countries with great poverty and unsanitary conditions. Most people who contract tuberculosis are between 20 and 40 years old, though it can occur at any age. Those with HIV/AIDS are more likely to get it. 

 

Typical Treatments for Lung Problems

Treatments and therapies for lung problems could include:

  • Bronchodilators. These can come as theophylline tablets or as bronchodilator inhalers (short-acting or long-acting). Long-acting inhalers help prevent symptoms, while short-acting ones are taken on an as-needed basis.
  • Mucolytic medications. Carbocisteine, a mucolytic drug, can help thin the phlegm in your throat if you have a chesty cough with thick mucus. It’s taken 3-4 times daily as a pill or capsule. Another mucolytic medication is acetylcysteine.
  • OPEP (Oscillatory Positive Expiratory Pressure) devices. These handheld devices improve breathing by treating lung problems by clearing out sputum, though more research is needed to tell exactly how effective they are.
  • Oxygen therapy. To increase the amount of oxygen in your lungs, you may be put on supplemental oxygen, also known as oxygen therapy. This treatment usually begins with a nasal cannula which pumps air from an oxygen tank to your nostrils through an air tube. If the need for oxygen therapy is severe, a surgeon will place a tracheostomy tube.
  • Palliative care. If breathing problems are severe and no treatment is possible, palliative care can be helpful. A team of specialists would look after you to create a personalized care plan to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible, providing psychological and emotional support. 
  • Steroid inhalers. If you still have trouble breathing after using a long-acting inhaler (or have frequent flare-ups), a corticosteroid inhaler can help decrease inflammation. 

Pulmonary Wellness Tips for Seniors

Here are some of the things you can do to keep your lungs as healthy as possible:

  • Attend checkups regularly
  • Avoid air pollution/pollutants
  • Be consistent with treatment
  • Don’t smoke or expose yourself to second-hand smoke
  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods
  • Exercise regularly and stay active
  • Wear a mask when you may be exposed to pollutants

 

Though it can be overwhelming to have lung problems, many of these conditions are manageable or treatable as long as you catch them early and practice the wellness tips above to be as healthy as possible. 

 

Do you have any questions about pulmonary care that aren’t covered in this article? Contact us!

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