Taking opioids appears to heighten an older person’s risk of developing pneumonia, data indicate.

Sascha Dublin, MD, PhD, and colleagues conducted a case-control study involving 3,061 adults aged 65 to 94 years. A total of 144 (13.9%) of the 1,039 people with pneumonia and 161 (8%) of the 2,022 matched controls were users of prescription opioids.

Patients taking long-acting opioids, such as sustained-release morphine, were more than three times more likely to contract pneumonia than were those not taking these painkillers, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Furthermore, opioid users were more than three times as likely as nonusers to get pneumonia during their first 14 days of opioid use. Pneumonia was nearly 1.9 times more likely to occur in those using immunosuppressive opioids compared with those not taking opioids.

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Benzodiazepines, like opioids, are sedatives and can slow respiratory rate and increase the risk of aspiration, but these agents were not found to increase pneumonia risk.

Dublin S et al. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2011;59:1899-1907.