The data recently released from the US Center for Disease Control does not lie: For adults over 65, infections are a leading cause of death. This information is supported by research conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), which indicates that one in three deaths is attributed to infections and infectious diseases in seniors. This troubling news needs to be taken seriously as common infections can often be prevented through routine medical and dental care, good hygiene habits, and attentiveness on the part of family members, caregivers, and companions.
While experienced professional caregivers are often trained to look for the common signs of illness and infection in their elderly clients, the general population is not always well-informed. This lack of knowledge often places seniors at risk as the signs and symptoms of potentially life-threatening infections such as influenza (‘the flu’), COVID-19, and urinary tract infections (UTIs) are very different in older adults than they are in younger adults or children. Therefore, understanding the common infections among senior citizens and what to look for is valuable information that might help save the life of a parent or family member.
Signs and symptoms of infections of those 65+
As we age, our bodies develop different responses to infections, which often looks very different from what younger adults or children experience. By carefully watching for even small changes in your family member’s health and taking precautionary steps to stop infections before they happen, you can foster an improved quality of life for your senior family members.
What should you be on the lookout for? Here is a list we encourage our senior companions and elderly caregivers to be alert to. While one instance does not necessarily indicate a problem, ongoing occurrences or many symptoms at once warrant a visit to your family physician or geriatrician.
- Headaches that come on suddenly
- Feeling cold or experiencing body chills
- Full body muscle aches
- Fever or fluctuating body temperature
- Coughing (both dry or productive)
- Sore throat
- Persistent fatigue
- Confusion with everyday tasks or habits
- Not being hungry or eating considerably less at each meal
What are the most common types of infection for the elderly?
The common signs and symptoms of infection are often the “tip of the iceberg” of a more significant health problem occurring in the person’s body. Here are the top 5 infections that can prove deadly to seniors if not identified and promptly treated. Understanding these infections and how they present in seniors is essential for caregivers.
1. Bacterial pneumonia
Did you know that for adults over 65, 60% will need to be admitted to a hospital due to pneumonia? Based on recent data from the AAFP, pneumonia is one of the most lethal infections an older adult can contract. Seniors are at far greater risk of dying from pneumonia than children or younger adults in part because the symptoms of the infection are very different in seniors. Instead of developing symptoms such as coughing, chills, and fever, the elderly will often present with non-respiratory symptoms such as being disoriented or confused and having a decreased appetite.
2. Influenza (“the flu”) and COVID
As adults age, weakened immune systems and additional health issues often place them at a heightened risk of developing life-threatening complications from respiratory infections such as the flu (influenza) or COVID-19. As both are spread through respiration, coughing, and sneezing, the infection rate can be high when seniors are in large-group social environments, such as weddings, birthday parties, or attending indoor events.
Be sure to speak with your doctor about annual flu vaccinations and COVID vaccination boosters, as these are generally recommended for seniors and those in higher-risk categories.
3. Bacterial skin infections
Another aging factor is the skin’s reduced ability to heal after injury. As a result, seniors are prone to developing skin infections such as fungal foot infections, cuts that become infected, or cellulitis. In this condition, the skin infections become painful and hot. Many skin infections can be prevented or lessened by practicing good hygiene, proper handwashing, and quickly administering first aid to cuts, scrapes, and blisters.
In addition, contracting shingles is another skin infection seniors are at risk of developing. Shingles often present as a rash or blisters with burning, sharp pain, itchiness, or tingling sensations. Shingles can last several weeks and may result in residual pain or scars even after the infection clears. Fortunately, the shingles vaccine can help prevent this painful infection. Speak with your physician to learn more.
4. Gastrointestinal Infections
Gastrointestinal infections typically result in abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gastritis. Many gastrointestinal infections come from ingesting harmful bacteria while eating. Seniors with a weakened immune system cannot overcome the problems these bacteria cause. To reduce the possibility of developing a gastrointestinal infection, always practice good food safety procedures and wash hands before meal preparation and eating.
5. Urinary tract infections
Often referred to as UTIs, urinary tract infections are common bloodstream infections. Women and those with diabetes or catheter use are at increased risk for developing a UTI. For seniors, it’s important to note that UTIs don’t often cause the pain or frequent urination experienced by younger adults. Warning signs for a developing UTI in senior patients may include changes in behavior, confusion, and urinary incontinence.
Two of the most important ways to prevent a UTI from developing are staying adequately hydrated and careful toileting, including wiping front to back. For seniors with limited mobility or in bathrooms without support, developing strategies for properly cleaning themselves after using the toilet can make a world of difference.
How seniors can bolster the immune system to ward off possible infections
It is a known fact that our immune system weakens as we age, which is why seniors over 65 are the most at risk for developing infections and life-threatening diseases. Too often, this decline begins years earlier and can be accelerated by several lifestyle factors. For example, people with a long history of smoking, obesity, or a very sedentary lifestyle may be at even greater risk. However, it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes and support the body’s immune system. There are two simple ways to do this that people of all ages can participate in. These immune system boosting activities include:
- Get daily exercise. Walking any amount is very helpful and even better for those who can make it to 10,000 steps a day. Attaching a simple pedometer or digital activity tracker can help everyone see how much they need to get up and move.
- Remember the expression, you are what you eat! Healthy, varied meals rich in dietary fiber, plants, and fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt) can help people lose weight, reduce their bad cholesterol, and lower high blood pressure.
Making lifestyle changes is never easy, but if the goal is to stay healthy, avoid common infections, and enjoy a long, happy life, they are much easier to begin and stick with daily. In addition, these two goals can be incorporated into everyday routines to promote improved health and longevity for seniors who live independently and have a family member or professional companion they interact with regularly.