Preventing Infectious Diseases in the Elderly

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, infections are the leading cause of death for adults over the age of 65, accounting for approximately one-third of all fatalities. These include several common infections that, for younger patients, may not be as dangerous, such as urinary tract infections or influenza.

Because seniors tend to have weakened immune symptoms, it’s more difficult for the body to respond and fight these infections off. As a result, many of the symptoms of an infection that caregivers often look for, like fever or an elevated white blood cell count, may not be there. Additionally, elderly patients who suffer from dementia may not be able to communicate their symptoms to medical staff or family members.

For these reasons and others, preventing infections in the first place is even more important when caring for elderly patients. For starters, it’s essential that family members and caregivers are aware of the most common types of infection in the elderly:

  • Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) – Seniors are more likely to use catheters than younger patients. However, if they are left in too long or re-used without proper cleaning, a UTI can develop. Diabetics can also experience a higher incidence of UTI. In older patients, however, pain and discomfort are less likely to be a symptom. Keep your eyes open for urinary incontinence. Also, sudden behavioral changes can be a sign of infection.
  • Skin Infections – As we age, our skin gets weaker in its ability to resist pathogens and heal itself, making skin infections more of a problem. If you notice any unusual lesions or itching, as well as pain or sensitivity in the skin, seek treatment. Most skin infections are treatable. Viral infections like shingles, pressure ulcers, cellulitis, and drug-resistant infections are the most common types of skin infections in seniors. With diabetics, bacterial or fungal foot infections can also be an issue.
  • Bacterial Pneumonia – Seniors tend to have changes in lung capacity as they age, along with increased exposure to disease in community settings, which puts them at greater risk for pneumonia. Because symptoms like chills, fever and coughing are less common among the elderly, caregivers should look for other signs, such as confusion or delirium. When caught early enough, bacterial pneumonia typically responds to treatment with antibiotics.
  • Influenza – Because the elderly experience weakened immune response as they age, there’s a higher risk of developing more severe complications from influenza, including pneumonia. The risk is higher for seniors who live in nursing homes because the flu is easy to transmit through coughing and sneezing. Again, be aware of any sudden changes in behavior, like delirium, because classic flu symptoms may not occur.
  • Gastrointestinal Infections – Seniors are often more susceptible to gastrointestinal infections because of aging-related changes in digestion. Plus, the flora in the intestines is likely to change with age. The result can be abdominal pain, fever, nausea, or diarrhea, as well as long-term illnesses like gastritis.

The best way to prevent many of these infections is to start with hygiene. Many infections that affect seniors are transmitted by contact, so it’s important for caregivers and patients to wash their hands with soap and water or use antibacterial products. For example, the risk of a urinary tract infection can be reduced by limiting the amount of time a catheter is used before being changed. Keeping the patient properly hydrated will also help prevent a UTI.

Finally, another very effective way to prevent infection is to improve the overall health of the patient. That includes moderate exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also cause circulation problems, which can lead to various infections. And stay up to date with all of your vaccines, especially influenza, pneumonia, and shingles.

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