Advancing Research

4 Ways People with Parkinson’s Can Avoid Common Hospital Complications

Older woman laying in a hospital bed holding her adult daughter's hand and speaking to a doctor

For most people, being in the hospital is a stressful experience. People are usually sick or experiencing a health issue. For people with Parkinson’s disease (PD), their symptoms may get worse, and new symptoms, like confusion or thinking changes, can develop because of stress, infection, fatigue, sleep disturbances, surgery or new medications.

A new published review of more than 35,000 hospital admissions of people with Parkinson’s found an increased risk of delirium and aspiration pneumonia as potentially avoidable complications. 

As we share in our Hospital Safety Guide, preparation and clear communication can help you minimize complications and recovery time when hospitalized. Understanding the risks you or a loved one with Parkinson’s face and ways to have your needs met can help the hospital care team provide the best possible care. 

Know how to identify Delirium

Delirium is a reversible change in a person's level of attention and concentration. 

Anti-nausea, gastrointestinal and pain medications, which are routinely given before and after surgery, can worsen existing PD symptoms or cause new, temporary symptoms like delirium. Avoiding these medications can decrease your risk of developing delirium.

Additionally, some common treatments for delirium aren’t appropriate for people with PD, and can make Parkinson’s symptoms and the delirium worse. If you or a loved one develop delirium in the hospital, it is important to avoid the antipsychotic medications that are antidopaminergic, meaning they decrease the amount of dopamine in the brain. 

People with Parkinson’s should only be given one of the three antipsychotics that are safe: 

  1. Pimavanserin (Nuplazid)
  2. Quetiapine (Seroquel)
  3. Clozapine (Clozaril). 

All psychotics, with the exception of these three, should be avoided in nearly all circumstances.

Read our list of medications to avoid

Know the signs of Aspiration Pneumonia 

Aspiration pneumonia accounts for 70% of deaths among people with PD, according to an NIH study

Aspiration pneumonia is an infection that happens when bacteria from your mouth gets pulled down into the lungs and causes an infection. This can happen after a person aspirates, meaning they swallow the wrong way, and something enters their airways or lungs. Aspiration occurs more frequently when someone has issues with swallowing (dysphagia), which is a common Parkinson’s symptom. 

To prevent aspiration and aspiration pneumonia, people with Parkinson’s need to be screened for swallowing changes, also known as dysphagia, to safely maintain their medication routine and minimize their risk of aspiration pneumonia and weight loss. 

In addition, ensuring that you or your loved one with Parkinson’s get their Parkinson’s medications on time and avoid contraindicated medications that are not safe for people with Parkinson’s can also help prevent the development of new dysphagia or the worsening of mild dysphagia. 

Tips to avoid delirium and aspiration pneumonia in the hospital

Tip 1.  Avoid medications that are not safe for Parkinson’s. 

This can potentially help you to:

  • Prevent delirium caused by taking contraindicated anti-nausea medications
  • Prevent worsening of delirium caused by taking contraindicated antipsychotic medications

Review the list of harmful medications on the Parkinson’s Care Summary with your hospital care team before surgery and before any new medication is prescribed.

Tip 2. Take medications on time, every time to help prevent new or worsening swallowing challenges. 

If your nurse or speech-language pathologist is concerned about your swallowing ability, discuss safe ways to continue taking your medications, such as with a sip of water or crushed with applesauce.

Use the Medication Form to list all your medications for Parkinson’s and other conditions, including over-the counter medications and supplements in the order that you take them each day. Your list should be clearly labeled with the dosage (usually mg or milligrams) and the specific time that you take each medication.

Download the Medication Form

Tip 3. Tell your nurses if you are having trouble swallowing and ask to see the Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). 

Together, your nurse and SLP can provide safety measures to decrease risks.

You may need to temporarily stop eating and drinking if you have a serious swallowing issue (dysphagia) or are scheduled for a medical procedure that requires fasting. If you or your loved one are instructed you cannot swallow pills, show the nurse and SLP “Other Ways to Take your Medication” to explore potential ways to safely continue taking Parkinson’s medications

If you have swallowing or speech symptoms, we recommend you regularly see a speech language pathologist. Once discharged, ask your doctor for a referral, or call our Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636).

Tip 4. Reducing the risk of aspiration pneumonia is a two-part process.

Help reduce aspiration pneumonia when hospitalized and at home that involves (1) preventing swallowing issues and (2) reducing bacteria in your mouth by cleaning your teeth and mouth regularly. Learn more about dental health and Parkinson’s.

Prevent aspiration by eating when PD meds are working and you have energy. It can also help to sit up for meals and take smaller bites. Prevent aspiration pneumonia by brushing your teeth, tongue and mouth before and after eating to reduce bacteria. 

Read more about the steps you can take to avoid delirium, aspiration pneumonia, and other avoidable complications in our Hospital Safety Guide.

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