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Pneumonia Guide: Symptoms, Causes & Diagnosis

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms

Pneumonia is a relatively common condition, referring to inflammation of the lungs caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Nevertheless, it can be fatal if left untreated. It's the leading cause of death in children under five and similarly dangerous for elderly people, who often have compromised respiratory systems from age-related diseases like COPD.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that knowing the early warning signs is a matter of life and death. Keep reading as we share several pneumonia symptoms in the elderly, how the condition is diagnosed and answers to common FAQs.

What is pneumonia?

As mentioned, pneumonia is inflammation in one or both lungs caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Usually, it begins as a mild infection but gradually becomes worse without intervention. Eventually, small air sacs called alveoli fill with pus and other fluid, restricting oxygen intake and causing pain when breathing.

Unfortunately, children and older people are most at risk because they're less able to fight the condition. The elderly are especially vulnerable if they live alone without support, which is where a one-touch safety alarm can help. Whenever you feel unwell, simply press the emergency button and we'll connect you to a SureSafe operator, friend or family member.

What are the first warning signs of pneumonia in the elderly?

So, what are the first warning signs of pneumonia in the elderly? Most people initially report flu-like symptoms, which don't particularly impact their everyday lives. Patients generally feel under the weather with a sore throat, mild cough and low-grade fever. You might also experience sneezing and body chills, which mimic a seasonal cold.

In healthy young adults, viral pneumonia often clears up with plenty of rest and over-the-counter medicines. However, people with underlining health conditions may require antibiotics and hospitalisation.

What are the symptoms of pneumonia in the elderly?

Over a few days to several weeks, the above signs morph into something much more serious. The tickly cough turns thick with mucus, and the fever skyrockets to dangerous new heights. Patients report difficulty breathing, paired with stabbing chest pains and unbearable tightness.

Below, we've rounded up some of the most common pneumonia symptoms in the elderly. If you or a loved one experiences any of the following, please seek medical advice.

Mucousy cough

Many people wonder how they'd tell the difference between a common cold, flu and pneumonia. Don't worry, you'll know. One of the telltale giveaways is a thick, mucousy cough accompanied by yellow or green phlegm. In extreme cases, you might notice blood – either from haemoptysis (coughing up blood from the lungs) or because straining has damaged the throat.

Of course, this can be distressing. Alongside contacting your local GP surgery or A&E department, you can alleviate some of the fear by enlisting professional help at home. Carers, on-call doctors and digital safety pendants give at-risk adults extra peace of mind.

Shallow breathing

As the alveoli fill up with liquid and become less effective, you'll notice shallower, painful breathing. The lungs have to work harder to get the same amount of oxygen, which puts enormous stress on the respiratory system. This doesn't go away with rest – you’ll be short of breath whether walking or sitting down.

Chest pain

Laboured breathing also makes the surrounding muscles work much harder, so many people report stabbing chest pain and full-body fatigue. Severe coughing can even break bones – cough-induced rib fractures aren't specific to pneumonia but reasonably common.

Pain often intensifies when you take deep breaths, radiating outward from underneath your breastbone. It usually begins as a dull ache or throbbing sensation. Ideally, you want to catch it at this stage to improve your recovery speed.


Fever always demands attention, especially if it doesn't respond to medicine and rest. Babies, young children and seniors are more likely to develop a high temperature with pneumonia than the general population.

Fevers can rise gradually or suddenly, making them difficult to predict. However, you can anticipate one if there are other warning signs, such as profuse sweating, elevated heart rate and rapid breathing.


Confusion is one of the specific symptoms of pneumonia in the elderly, partly because infection decreases cognitive function. It's much harder to think straight when your body is preoccupied with keeping you healthy. On top of this, the lungs absorb less oxygen than usual, so the brain can’t operate at full capacity.

We all know how hard it is to sleep and eat when poorly, which also contributes to disorientation. Our top advice? Stay well rested, fed and hydrated to give yourself the best possible chances of a full recovery.

What is the main cause of pneumonia?

There are more than 30 types of pneumonia, each with different causes. Some develop after a viral infection, and others from fungi and parasites. Lifestyle and environment also play pivotal roles. You're more likely to suffer if you smoke and live in a heavily polluted urban environment.

Here are the four main types of pneumonia with their associated causes:

Bacterial pneumonia: Caused by various bacteria, most commonly streptococcus pneumoniae. Usually affects people with weakened immune and respiratory systems, such as smokers or those recovering from surgery and managing chronic illnesses.

Viral pneumonia: Typically starts as a cold or flu. Caused by common seasonal illnesses and airborne germs. May increase the chances of bacterial pneumonia.

Mycoplasma pneumonia: Mycoplasma pneumoniae is an atypical bacteria that triggers lung infections. Like most forms of pneumonia, it’s contagious and passed from person to person via sneezes and coughs.

Fungal pneumonia: Although much rarer, a huge concern for the immunocompromised population. Occurs when there's an abnormally low number of white blood cells called neutropenia. People with cancer, HIV and COPD are disproportionately affected. Long-term steroid use also increases risk.

How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Doctors use a multipronged approach to diagnose pneumonia. First, they'll review your medical history and offer a comprehensive physical examination, which includes listening to your breathing with a stethoscope.

If they suspect the condition, they'll send you for further diagnostic procedures, such as blood tests, chest X-rays and pulse oximetry. The latter measures the oxygen levels in your blood via a small sensor attached to your finger or ear. You'll be pleased to know all these diagnostic tools are non-invasive.

Pneumonia in the elderly FAQs

How serious is getting pneumonia?

Pneumonia can be deadly. As well as the symptoms above, late-stage complications include respiratory failure, sepsis and lung abscesses. Older people with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable, with studies suggesting the mortality rate could be as high as 20%.

Can pneumonia heal on its own?

Many young to middle-aged adults with no underlying health conditions will recover from viral pneumonia within a few weeks. However, you shouldn't take any chances. We always recommend speaking to your healthcare provider if you notice symptoms. At the very least, antiviral medication will speed up the healing process.

When should you go to the hospital for pneumonia?

If you notice an exceptionally high fever and your symptoms don't improve with medication and rest, you must go to the hospital. Advanced pneumonia requires intervention – it will not improve by itself.

Patients will normally receive antibiotics and fluids intravenously through a drip, combined with supplemental oxygen. In very serious cases, people might need breathing assistance through a ventilator in intensive care.

What happens if pneumonia is left untreated?

It's impossible to predict what'll happen if you don't treat pneumonia. While some recover with plenty of rest and fluids, others struggle to shake off the illness. As a rule, expect more severe consequences if you or a loved one is part of a high-risk group. These include:

  • Elderly adults
  • Babies and young children
  • Smokers and heavy drinkers
  • People with underlying health conditions, such as asthma and COPD
  • People who are immunocompromised, whether through a recent illness, organ or disease like cancer or HIV

Can you catch pneumonia from someone who has it?

Most types of pneumonia are contagious, just like a cold or flu. The infection is usually caused by bacteria and viruses, which are passed on through tiny fluid droplets in the air. Alternatively, people may catch it by touching an object and picking up germs.

How can you stop the spread? Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and cough, stay at home until you feel better and disinfect surfaces after use. You may also be eligible for the pneumococcal vaccine, which combats the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia.

Fungal pneumonia and those triggered by external lung damage, such as inhaling toxic fumes, aren't contagious.

Live confidently with a SureSafe Alarm

Now we've run through pneumonia symptoms in the elderly, how can you feel more confident living with the threat of infection? Alongside attending regular check-ups and looking after your general wellbeing through diet and exercise, we advise investing in a personal safety alarm.

If you ever feel unwell, you know expert support is only a button press away. Features include automatic fall detection, GPS tracking and 24/7 monitoring for extra peace of mind.

Need more advice about our products and services? Contact our professional, friendly team today on 0808 506 8177, request a call back or use our live chat.

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