AARP Eye Center
It’s pretty typical to develop a cough or an upper respiratory infection in the winter. Most of the time you get over it quickly. But sometimes, a winter illness can develop into pneumonia, a lung infection that is particularly dangerous for older adults.
In a typical year, about 1.5 million Americans go to the emergency room with pneumonia, and more than 40,000 people die of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Pneumonia can cause severe illness in people of any age, but children under age 5 and older adults are the most vulnerable. A 2018 study in Singapore found that more than 1 out of every 6 adults age 65-plus who are hospitalized with pneumonia die from the infection.
People who smoke, who have weak immune systems or who have chronic conditions such as lung disease or heart disease are at even higher risk.
Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses, including the ones that cause the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, pneumonia has been a particular concern. Studies show COVID-19 pneumonia lasts longer and causes more lung damage than typical pneumonia, contributing to COVID’s high mortality rates. In one study, Northwestern University researchers described how pneumonia caused by the coronavirus spread swiftly throughout the lungs.
Getting the influenza and COVID-19 vaccines helps protect you from pneumonia caused by those viruses. And the pneumococcal vaccine— recommended for all those age 65 and older — prevents a common type of bacterial pneumonia that has a high fatality rate among older adults.