Much is written about preventing and treating infections, but much of infection prevention can be summed up in just a few words: Get vaccinated, practice good hygiene, and wash your hands! We might also add that keeping bathrooms and kitchens squeaky clean will also go a long way toward ridding a home of germs and bacteria that can lead to an individual contracting an infection.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), “infectious diseases account for one-third of all deaths in people over the age of 65.” However, early detection is difficult in the elderly because the typical signs and symptoms, such as fever and high white blood cell count, are frequently absent. “A change in mental status or decline in function may be the only presenting problem in an older patient with an infection.”
Types of infection common in the elderly
- Pneumococcal disease (pneumonia)
- Influenza (flu)
- Skin infections — including shingles, and staph infections
- Urinary tract infections
Currently, vaccines exist for pneumonia, influenza, and shingles. Shots for Safety, an article on the website of the National Institute on Aging, describes these vaccines:
Pneumonia is a serious infection that spreads from person to person by air and typically first affects the lungs. Pneumonia can be deadly, so most people age 65 and older should get a pneumococcal shot to help prevent the disease. Usually, people only need the shot once, but if you were younger than age 65 when you had the shot, you may need a second one to stay protected.
Flu—short for influenza—is a virus that can cause fever, chills, sore throat, stuffy nose, headache, and muscle aches. It is easy to pass from person to person and is very serious when it gets into the lungs. The virus also changes over time, which means you can get it multiple times. That’s why most people should get the flu shot each year.
Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox. If you had chickenpox, the virus is still in your body. It could become active again and cause shingles. Shingles affects the nerves. Common symptoms include burning, shooting pain, tingling, and/or itching, as well as a rash and fluid-filled blisters. Even when the rash disappears, the pain can stay. The shingles vaccine is a safe and easy shot that may prevent the disease. Protection from the shingles vaccine lasts at least 5 years.
Currently, there are no vaccines that will prevent a staph infection or UTI.
Staph is caused when bacteria (germs) commonly found on the skin or in the nose, enters an open wound, such as a cut, or during surgery. An article on the Mayo Clinic website reads, “Staph infections can range from minor skin problems to a life-threatening infection. The symptoms of a staph infection vary widely, depending on the location and severity of the infection.” The first defense against a common staph infection is cleaning and bandaging any wounds or open sores.
Some staph infections are caused by bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. When an antibiotic-resistant infection occurs when a person is in the hospital, or other healthcare facility, these infections (such as MRSA), are referred to as a Healthcare-Associated Infection (HAI). When an infection becomes widespread in the body, it can lead to a condition called sepsis and can have serious consequences.
Urinary Tract Infection
There is currently no vaccine to prevent a urinary tract infection (UTI). A UTI is a bacterial infection in the urinary system. UTIs are best prevented through close attention to cleanliness and by drinking a lot of fluids, which flushes out the urinary tract. In healthy individuals, the symptoms of a UTI are hard to miss and include itching and burning. However, UTIs are often missed in the elderly, particularly in individuals with any form of dementia. If you observe a sudden change in behavior. or your client or loved one’s dementia seems to worsen, consider that the cause may be a UTI.
Typically, infections are treated with antibiotics. But antibiotic overuse has resulted in certain bacteria becoming resistant to some of the most powerful antibiotics available today. Older adults and others with compromised immune systems are more likely to contract an infection. Spending time in a healthcare facility such as a hospital or nursing home increases the chances of becoming infected and of an infection spreading.
Vaccines and handwashing help prevent the most common infections.
With infections becoming more difficult to treat, prevention becomes even more important. We can help prevent infection, and the spread of infections, by practicing good infection control methods such as covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying home if you are sick, and washing your hands frequently or use of a hand sanitizing gel when you are around an elderly person. And of course, ask your doctor what vaccinations are appropriate for you. Family Resource Home Care strongly urges all our caregivers to get their flu shot now.