Most Common Infections in the Elderly
Common infections like influenza and UTIs can happen to anyone, but for adults over the age of 65, these illnesses may be much harder to diagnose — leading to chronic poor health, ongoing discomfort and a higher risk of hospitalization.
In fact, one-third of all deaths in seniors over 65 results from infectious diseases, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Though seniors are more susceptible to infection overall, seniors with dementia or those who are in long-term care may be at even greater risk.
For caregivers, it’s critical to learn about the most common infections in the elderly and their often-elusive signs and symptoms: “Nonspecific symptoms, such as decline in functioning, incontinence, loss of appetite and mental status changes may be the presenting signs of infection,” according to an article in Infectious Disease Clinics of North America.
If we stay alert to any changes in senior health and take steps to ward off any infections that might be preventable, we can help promote greater wellness and quality of life for our loved ones in their golden years.
Here are the five most common infections in the elderly:
1. Bacterial pneumonia.
More than 60% of seniors over 65 get admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia (AAFP). Seniors are at greater risk for pneumonia for a variety of reasons, including changes in lung capacity, increased exposure to disease in community settings and increased susceptibility due to other conditions like cardiopulmonary disease or diabetes.
Classic symptoms like chills, cough and fever are less frequent in the elderly, says the Infectious Disease Clinics of North America; instead, keep an eye out for non-respiratory symptoms like confusion or delirium. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotic treatment for bacterial pneumonia. Some types of pneumonia can be effectively prevented using a pneumococcal vaccine, and this is highly recommended for nursing home residents.
2. Elderly influenza.
Influenza and pneumonia combined add up to the sixth leading cause of death in America — 90% of which occur in senior adults (AAFP). Weakened immunity in the elderly, along with other chronic conditions, increases the risk of developing severe complications from influenza, such as pneumonia. Because influenza is easily transmitted by coughing and sneezing, the risk of infection increases in a closed environment like a nursing home.
Chills, cough and fever are the common symptoms, though again, influenza may present different signs in older adults. Annual flu vaccinations are usually recommended for seniors in order to prevent infection, but for those already infected, a physician may prescribe antiviral medications to reduce symptoms.
3. Elderly skin infections.
Changes to aging skin and its ability to heal and resist disease mean that skin infections get much more common as we get older. These include:
- Bacterial or fungal foot infections (which can be more common in those with diabetes)
- Drug-resistant infections like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Viral infections like herpes zoster (shingles) and pressure ulcers
Stay alert to any unusual itching, lesions or pain, and seek treatment if your loved one is in discomfort. Most skin infections are treatable and shingles is preventable with a simple vaccine. Ward off other skin infections by practicing good hygiene such as proper hand washing, particularly if your loved one lives in a senior care community.
4. Gastrointestinal infections.
Age-related changes to digestion and gastrointestinal flora put seniors at increased risk of developing gastrointestinal infections. Two of the most common are Helicobacter pylori, which may cause fever, nausea and upper abdominal pain as well as leading to long-term illness such as gastritis; and Clostridium difficile, an increasingly common diarrhea-causing infection, which usually occurs due to antibiotic treatments that suppress healthy gastrointestinal flora.
Both illnesses are more common in long-term care facilities. While H. pylori is treated using a combination of drug therapies, C. difficile treatment involves halting the use of the antibiotic causing the problem.
5. Urinary tract infections.
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are the most common bacterial infection in older adults, reports the AAFP. The use of catheters or the presence of diabetes can increase the risk of UTIs in elderly people. Sudden changes in behavior, such as confusion or worsening of dementia, or the onset of urinary incontinence, are common warning signs — discomfort and pain don’t necessarily happen with UTIs in seniors.
If you suspect a UTI, a physician can perform a urinalysis or other testing to confirm the diagnosis and then prescribe antibiotics if needed. Caregivers should make sure their loved ones’ drink plenty of water, as this can help prevent UTIs.