sickle cell disease and pneumonia

Can Sickle Cell Disease Lead To Pneumonia in the Elderly?

Examining the Pneumonia Connection

The link between sickle cell disease and pneumonia isn’t talked about enough. Yet, individuals with sickle cell disease have a higher susceptibility to pneumonia. In other words, this can quickly turn into a life-threatening situation, especially for older individuals.

Usually, sickle cell disease is diagnosed early on in a person’s life. This inherited disease causes abnormalities in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. As you might already know, hemoglobin is necessary to transport oxygen to areas of the body that need it. Inevitably, abnormal hemoglobin can cause more than a few problems.

Individuals with sickle cell disease may experience lower oxygen saturation—and often, their red blood cells become hard and sticky and tend to die early. In other words, if you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, you likely have a constant shortage of adequate red blood cells.

On top of this, these cells can lead to blockages in the arteries and veins, as well as infection and stroke. So, how exactly can sickle cell disease lead to pneumonia in the elderly? What should you know? What symptoms should you watch out for?

Sickle Cell Disease and Pneumonia: The Connection

The most well-known complication of sickle cell disease is Acute Chest Syndrome (ACS). This happens when sickle cells cause blockages, leading to a lack of blood and oxygen in the lungs. Interestingly, though, the signs of ACS are similar to pneumonia—meaning, sometimes, this can be misdiagnosed.

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the lungs. As a result, the air sacs in the lungs may fill up with pus or fluid. And this can lead to a few uncomfortable symptoms, such as:

  • A phlegm-y cough.
  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Trouble breathing.

For most, pneumonia is like a bad cold or flu. But for infants or the elderly, it can be life-threatening. And it can be even more serious for someone diagnosed with sickle cell disease.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that pneumonia is the leading cause of death for infants with sickle cell disease. Yet, it can be just as bad for the elderly, who also may have weakened immune systems and, thus, are more vulnerable than the average person.

Research states that those with sickle cell disease are more susceptible to pneumonia due to the damage this condition causes to the spleen. One of the spleen’s main jobs in the body is to filter the blood; this includes removing old or damaged red blood cells, such as those commonly found in individuals with sickle cell disease.

However, since sickle cells are sticky and are more likely to cause blockages, they can also block the vessels used to filter these same cells in the spleen. In turn, this organ can quickly become swollen and painful.

This can lead to increased bacteria and infection, including pneumonia. So, how can you catch this early?

Pneumonia Symptoms To Look Out For

If you’re looking after an elderly parent or grandparent in your family with sickle cell disease, you’ll want to pay attention to signs of pneumonia. Since this can quickly develop into a scary situation, catching them early is important. Plus, some seniors may be quick to brush off their symptoms as a simple cold or flu.

So, here is a list of pneumonia symptoms to watch out for:

  • Chest pain when breathing.
  • Chest pain when coughing.
  • Confusion.
  • Altered mental awareness.
  • Coughing, which may include phlegm.
  • Fatigue or increased exhaustion.
  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • Chills or the shakes.
  • Lower body temperature.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Shortness of breath.

Someone with sickle cell disease and pneumonia needs to book a visit with their doctor. If they have trouble breathing, a trip to the emergency room might be necessary if an immediate appointment isn’t possible.

A doctor can properly diagnose pneumonia by listening to the lungs with a stethoscope or through imaging.

From there, antibiotics are usually required to resolve the illness since it’s most frequently due to a bacterial infection. Their doctor may further recommend cough medicine, fever relievers and pain-reducing medication to help manage other symptoms while the antibiotics do their work.

Yet, it’s also important to note that for those 65 years and older, hospitalization with pneumonia is common due to the high risk it poses (especially for those with sickle cell disease). It may also be necessary if breathing is a continual issue, which can be common with sickle cell disease and pneumonia.

With sickle cell disease, it’s always best to be mindful. If you’re over 65 years of age with sickle cell disease or looking after an elderly individual with it, the following tips are good to keep in mind as you go about daily activities:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Avoid getting too cold or too hot.
  • Avoid places with low oxygen, such as high altitudes.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Be careful when preparing food to avoid bacteria.
  • Ensure you get all your recommended vaccines.

Lastly, always follow the advice of your or their family doctor. They know the situation best and can help you navigate accordingly.

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