There's no surprise in learning that our immune systems weaken as we age. In fact, one third of all deaths in older adults are due to infectious diseases.
The good news is, there's a lot you can do to avoid getting an infection, no matter your age.
1. Bacterial Pneumonia / Influenza
More than 60% of people over the age of 65 are admitted to the hospital because of pneumonia. A full 90% of deaths resulting from pneumonia occur in older adults, making it an especially common and dangerous infection. Seniors are at higher risk of developing pneumonia due to decreased lung capacity, vascular flexibility and cough reflex and declining ability to expel mucous from the body. Moreover, seniors tend to be exposed to the bacteria in communal settings like assisted living communities, hospitals and nursing homes.
Pneumonia is not always easy to identify in the elderly, as common symptoms like fever and coughing do not necessarily present themselves early on. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the symptoms you should be looking for:
- Chest pain when you breathe or cough
- Confusion, delirium, dizziness (especially seniors)
- Cough / phlegm
- Tired, weak
- Fever, sweating and shaking chills
- Lower than normal body temperature (especially seniors)
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Vaccines. The National Institute for Aging recommends seniors get vaccinated for bacterial pneumococcal pneumonia. It can reduce the chances of getting pneumococcal pneumonia by 75% according to studies.
- Getting the flu vaccine every year has been shown to be 58 percent effective in reducing the flu and close to 70 percent effective in reducing flu related mortality in older adults according to studies.
- Maintain a strong immune system. Easier said than done, but eat well, sleep well and exercise.
- Keep good hygiene. Avoid others who are ill. Wash your hands frequently, especially after going out in public places like a common dining room or lounge in a senior facility. Also, keep your teeth clean to avoid infection.
2. Urinary Tract Infection
Urinary tract infections (UTI) are the most common bacterial infections in older adults. Both older men and women are more apt to get a UTI than younger people, however women are more susceptible than men. The most common cause is bacteria from the rectum infecting the urethra. However, the pooling of urine in the bladder caused by an enlarged prostate in men or a bladder that has descended in a woman can also be a breeding ground for bacteria causing UTI's.
While UTI's mostly present themselves through a burning sensation when peeing, sometimes the symptoms can be silent, which is when UTI's can go undiagnosed and cause serious complications among seniors. This is more common among seniors and especially common for those who have suffered a stroke, Parkinson's or dementia. According to Harvard some of the more common symptoms to look for are:
- Burning when urinating
- Frequent urination
- Pain in the area of the bladder
- Confusion / agitation
- Loss of appetite
- Drink more fluids. Seniors tend not to drink as much to avoid going to the bathroom. But doing so causes the urine to stagnate in the bladder, making it easier for bacteria to grow.
- For women who get UTI's often, they should discuss using a vaginal estrogen cream with their doctor, which reduces UTI's by 70% to 90% according to one study.
- Good hygiene. Keep yourself clean in the nether regions. Take a bath or shower every day. If you use adult diapers, make sure to change them frequently.
3. Skin Infections
As we age, our skin has less ability to heal and repel disease. Some of the more common and dangerous skin disease that affect seniors include:
- Herpes zoster (shingles)
- Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) - more common in institutional settings
- Enterococcus - more common in institutional settings
Symptoms vary depending on the skin infection, so we'll take a look at each separately:
- skin lesions that develop puss and crust within 10 days
- Severe, sometimes debilitating, pain
- small break in the skin becomes warm, red, swollen and painful.
- shortness of breath
- Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE)
- redness / inflammation
- wound infections
- Wash your hands frequently. This is especially important for those in institutional settings like senior homes, nursing homes or hospitals. Be especially vigilant before and after eating and after using the bathroom. It's also a good idea to make sure that areas like door handles, railings and arm rests on chairs are frequently washed.