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Common Infections in the Elderly: Causes, Facts, and Treatments

By Joe CarneyApril 27, 2022
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Infections are a leading cause of death in adults over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, one-third of all deaths in seniors over 65 results from infectious diseases, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Infections like influenza and urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common and often mild. But for adults over the age of 65, these illnesses may be much harder to diagnose, leading to chronically poor health, ongoing discomfort, and a higher risk of hospitalization.

Read on to learn about common infections in seniors, warning signs, and treatments.


In this article:


Infection in the elderly: Signs and symptoms

Because seniors’ bodies respond differently to infections, they don’t always show symptoms that younger patients typically do. For this reason, infections can sometimes be tricky to diagnose in seniors. Even blood samples can miss some signs of infection, since senior patients might not show a spike in their white blood cell count — a common indicator of infection — even if they’re sick.

By staying vigilant for small changes in your loved one’s health and taking early steps to ward off any infections that might be preventable, you can promote greater wellness, quality of life, and longevity for your loved one.

Most importantly, different types of infections cause different symptoms, and some common symptoms will present in some seniors but not others based on factors like overall health and fitness. However, there are some typical, familiar signs to watch for to spot a number of common infections in older adults:

  • Sudden headaches
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Loss of appetite

4 Common types of infections in the elderly

Now that you know some common signs to watch for, learn about common infections in older adults, their symptoms, how they’re contracted, and ways to treat them.

1. Bacterial pneumonia

More than 60% of seniors over 65 get admitted to hospitals due to pneumonia, according to the AAFP. Pneumonia is perhaps the most lethal infection in older adults in the U.S., and it poses a greater risk to senior patients than to younger populations for a variety of reasons. Reduced lung capacity, increased exposure in community settings, and a weakened immune system caused by underlying conditions all combine to make pneumonia even more serious as many seniors age.

Classic symptoms like chills, cough, and fever are less frequent in elderly pneumonia patients, according to research published in the journal Infectious Disease Clinics of North America. Instead of looking exclusively for these well-known symptoms, keep an eye out for non-respiratory symptoms like confusion, disorientation, and decreased appetite.

Doctors usually prescribe antibiotic treatment for bacterial pneumonia, and some types of pneumonia can be effectively prevented with a pneumococcal vaccine.

2. Elderly influenza

Influenza and pneumonia combined add up to the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Because seniors often have weakened immune systems and multiple chronic conditions, they’re at an increased risk of developing severe complications from influenza, such as pneumonia. And since influenza is easily spread by coughing and sneezing, the risk of infection increases in closed environments, like nursing homes.

Chills, cough, and fever are the typical symptoms. But again, influenza may present different signs in older adults.

Annual flu vaccinations are usually recommended for seniors to prevent infection. However, physicians may prescribe antiviral medications to reduce symptoms for already-infected seniors.  Since seniors have lower immune responses than younger patients, their doctor or pharmacist can direct you to a vaccine that will fit your loved one’s needs, according to the National Council on Aging. Some seniors may have adverse reactions to flu vaccines, so always ask a doctor before scheduling a flu vaccine appointment.

3. Elderly skin infections

Seniors are much more prone to developing skin infections because of their skin’s declining ability to heal itself and resist disease.

Common skin infections in elderly patients include:

  • Bacterial or fungal foot infections, which can be more common in those with diabetes
  • Cellulitis
  • Drug-resistant infections, like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
  • Viral infections like herpes zoster (shingles) and pressure ulcers

Stay alert for any unusual itching, lesions, or painful areas of skin. Seek treatment if your loved one is in discomfort.

Most skin infections are treatable, and shingles is preventable with a simple vaccine. The CDC recommends adults 50 and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine, which is called Shingrix.

Prevent skin infections by practicing good hygiene, such as proper handwashing. Bacterial infections, like MRSA, are more commonly contracted by older adults in hospitals. So good hygiene is especially important if your loved one lives in a senior living community or an institutional care setting.

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4. Urinary tract infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the most common cause of bacteremia — a type of bloodstream infection — in older adults, according to the AAFP. Diabetes and catheter use can increase the risk of UTIs in elderly people.

Warning signs for senior patients include sudden changes in behavior, such as confusion or worsening of dementia, and the onset of urinary incontinence. It’s also important to note that seniors don’t always experience pain or frequent urination from UTIs, which are common signs in younger patients.

If you’re worried your loved one might have a UTI, talk to their doctor. They can send a urine sample for a urinalysis lab test to confirm a diagnosis. From there, they may prescribe antibiotics, if needed.

Staying hydrated and wiping front to back after toileting are two of the most important ways to prevent UTIs. While there’s no clear answer at the moment, some studies show that drinking cranberry juice may also prevent UTIs.

Learn more about infections in the elderly

To learn more about how senior living communities work to prevent the spread of infection, and for guidance on senior living in general, contact one of A Place for Mom’s local senior living experts. Their expertise is provided at no cost to you. Together, they’ve helped hundreds of thousands of families find a best-fit senior living solution for their loved ones.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, October 14). Pneumonia can be prevented — vaccines can help.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, January 24). Shingles vaccination.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 leading causes of death, United States.

Henig, O., & Kaye, K. S. (2017, September 13). Bacterial pneumonia in older adultsInfectious Disease Clinics of North America.

Hisano, M., Bruschini, H., Nicodemo, A. C., & Srougi, M. (2012, June). Cranberries and lower urinary tract infection preventionClinics.

Mayo Clinic. (2020, June 13). Pneumonia.

Mayo Clinic. (2021, April 23). Urinary tract infection (UTI).

Mouton, C. P., Bazaldua, O. V., Pierce, B., & Espino, D. V. (2001, January 15). Common infections in older adultsThe American Academy of Family Physicians.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider regarding any medical condition or treatment, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay treatment based on anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

Author
Joe Carney

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