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Fight infections in elderly fast and furously
Senior Moments
Rich DeLong is executive director of Station Exchange Senior Care. - photo by File photo

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, infectious diseases account for one third of all deaths in people 65 years and older.

Early detection is more difficult in the elderly because the typical signs and symptoms, such as fever and leukocytosis (an increase in white blood cells), are sometimes absent. A change in mental status or decline in function may be the only presenting problem in an older person with an infection.

What are the most common infections affecting our elderly population today? Below are the big three that all seniors, and those caring for the elderly, need to be aware of.

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 our elderly population. Sudden changes in behavior, such as confusion or worsening of dementia, or the onset of urinary incontinence, are common warning signs — pain or discomfort are not always common with UTIs in seniors. If you suspect a UTI, your 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 fluids, and help perform routine daily hygiene tasks to help prevent UTIs.

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 viral infections like shingles, pressure ulcers, bacterial or fungal foot infections — which are more common for those with diabetes — cellulitis and even drug-resistant infections like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — which is a particular problem in the elderly because they are exposed to infections at higher rates in hospital and institutional settings.

So stay alert to any unusual skin 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. Stave off other skin infections by practicing good hygiene such as proper hand washing, particularly if your loved one lives in a senior care community.

More than 60 percent of seniors over 65 get admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia, according to 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, living a more sedentary lifestyle, and increased susceptibility due to other conditions like cardiopulmonary disease or diabetes.

Classic symptoms like fever, chills and cough may not be present in the elderly. Keep an eye out for non-respiratory symptoms like weakness, confusion or delirium. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotic treatment for bacterial pneumonia. Some types of pneumonia can be prevented through the pneumococcal vaccine; which is highly recommended for people living in long-term care communities.

A fourth issue, although not an infection, can also be a serious health concern. Dehydration in seniors is often due in-part to inadequate fluid intake, but can happen for many other reasons as well including diarrhea, excessive sweating, loss of blood, diseases such as diabetes, as well as side effects of prescribed medications like diuretics and medications for controlling blood pressure. Dehydration can also lead to an infection such as a UTI.

The ability to be aware of and respond to thirst weakens as we age. So drink up during these hot summer days and practice good hygiene to help keep infections at bay.

Stay infection-free my friends.

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