We all experience infections occasionally, and while they can be unpleasant, they are usually cleared by the body’s immune system within a week or so. For seniors, especially those who choose to age in place in their homes, these common infections can be more difficult to cure and may lead to chronic health issues, hospitalization or even death.
For caregivers, it’s important to learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of sometimes hard-to-spot infections. Often, seniors present with nonspecific symptoms, such as a reduced appetite, a change in mental status or functioning, or incontinence.
This is why it’s so critical that caregivers not only know what to look for, but also remain alert to any changes in the health of the person for whom they provide care. Prevention and early interventions are critically important, and we at The Legacy at Home want to discuss some of the more common infections that affect seniors to help prevent them.
Here are the five most common infections that affect older adults:
- Bacterial pneumonia
More than half of seniors over the age of 65 are admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia at some point. In fact, older adults are at a much higher risk of developing pneumonia for several reasons. Changes in lung capacity and the immune system, as well as increased susceptibility due to other conditions such as cardiopulmonary disease or diabetes are often-cited factors.
Telltale symptoms such as coughing, chills and fever occur less frequently in older adults, so it’s important to look for other clues, such as confusion or delirium. Pneumonia is usually treated with antibiotics. Some types of pneumonia may be prevented by getting a pneumococcal immunization, which is recommended for residents of senior living communities.
Influenza and pneumonia together make up the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, and close to 90% of these deaths are older adults. Older adults are at higher risk due to several factors, including weakened immune systems and other chronic illnesses which can increase their risk of severe complications due to influenza, such as pneumonia.
Since influenza is transmitted fairly easily through coughing and sneezing, older adults in senior living communities are further at increased risk for contracting the flu. For these reasons, annual flu immunizations are usually provided for seniors in communities to prevent infection.
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Urinary tract infections (or UTIs) are the most common infections in older adults. This is especially true for older adults with diabetes, as well as in those who need to use a catheter. Discomfort and pain are typical symptoms for younger adults, but in older adults, these symptoms may not be present. It’s important to watch for sudden changes in behavior, such as confusion or worsening of dementia or the onset of urinary incontinence, which are common warning signs for UTIs in seniors.
If you suspect a loved one has a UTI, their physician can perform a routine urinalysis or other test to confirm the diagnosis and prescribe antibiotics if needed.
Caregivers should be sure that their loved ones drink plenty of water, as this can help prevent UTIs.
- Gastrointestinal Infections
As we get older, changes in our digestion and our gastrointestinal flora can put older adults at risk for developing gastrointestinal (GI) infections. One of the more common infections is Helicobacter pylori, which can cause fever, nausea and abdominal pain and lead to long-term issues such as gastritis.
The other main culprit is Clostridium difficile (or C. diff, for short), an increasingly common infection that causes diarrhea. C diff frequently occurs as the result of antibiotic treatments that suppress the body’s healthy gastrointestinal flora.
While H. pylori can be treated using a combination of drug therapies, C. diff treatment can be tricky, as it involves halting the use of the antibiotic causing the problem.
- Skin Infections
The skin changes as we age, losing its ability to heal and resist disease like it once did. This means that older adults are more susceptible to skin diseases, including:
- Viral infections like herpes zoster (shingles), pressure ulcers
- Bacterial or fungal foot infections (which can be more common in those with diabetes)
- Drug-resistant infections like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Caregivers should watch for any unusual or persistent itching, lesions or pain, and they should seek treatment if the older adult is experiencing discomfort. Most skin infections are easily treatable, and shingles may be prevented with a simple immunization. Other skin infections can be avoided by keeping the skin clean, exercising proper hygiene practices and plenty of hand washing.
Ways to Prevent Infections in the Elderly
To help older adults prevent infections and illness, it’s important to keep their immune systems as strong as possible.
Caregivers should remember these tips when working with older adults:
- Cover your cough
- Don’t share personal items
- Get vaccinated
- Prepare your food safely
- Wash your hands often
There are also steps that older adults can take to keep their bodies and immune systems strong, including:
- Eating foods that nourish the body.
Proper nutrition provides the body with the energy needed to fight off infections and maintain energy and strength.
Older adults are encouraged to eat high nutrient foods such as:
- Berries – especially raspberries, blueberries and strawberries
- Dark leafy greens – including spinach and kale
- Healthy fats – like the type found in certain nuts and fish
- Probiotic food products* – such as yogurt and supplement drinks
- Protein – ideally from lean meats, nuts and other low-fat sources
- Vegetables – cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, offer the most benefits, but nearly all vegetables contain healthy nutrients.
*Consult a physician before including probiotics with live cultures in an older adult’s diet.
- Work on stress management
Multiple studies have shown that stress can have a big impact on the body’s immune system. Constant stress and anxiety not only wears us down emotionally, it also takes a physical toll. It’s a good idea to learn how to recognize stress and manage it in a healthy way to assist in relaxation and recovery.
Stress management might be a simple as taking the time to stare at a favorite piece of art, meditation, or just deep-breathing exercises.
- Make sure to stay active
Exercise and physical activity are critical for maintaining health and ensuring the immune system is strong enough to fight off illnesses. There are various theories out there regarding how physical activity can keep us from getting sick, including:
- A higher body temperature could kill off infections while exercising
- Exercise may cause white blood cells to move more quickly to attack germs
- Exercise may help eject bacteria from of the lungs
- Exercise typically reduces stress levels
How The Legacy at Home Can Help
For older adults, preventing common infections can help them lead longer, healthier and happier lives. If you or a loved one requires medical care services in the home, The Legacy at Home offers nursing services to fill that need.
Beyond providing medical care specific to each patient’s situation, The Legacy at Home’s skilled nurses are experienced in recognizing and treating common infections. You can call (972) 244-7700 or visit our nursing page for more information about our in-home nursing services.
If you’d like to learn more about any other care services through The Legacy at Home, including at-home personal care and therapy or hospice, reach out to us and our knowledgeable team can answer your questions, address any concerns, and offer advice. The Legacy at Home strives to be a resource not only for our clients, but for the Plano and Greater Dallas communities as well. Call our experts at (972) 244-7701 or to learn more.