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How Can Sepsis Affect the Elderly?

Sepsis has long been a significant cause of death in the elderly. Though anyone who develops an infection in any region of the body can become septic, sepsis is especially dangerous for elderly, ill, or immunocompromised individuals. Medically compromised seniors who depend on assistive technologies such as IVs, breathing tubes, and catheters, are especially vulnerable to infections and sepsis.

Sepsis is a life-threatening, overactive immune response to a serious infection in which the body’s natural defense against infected tissue begins also attacking healthy tissue in the body. If untreated, sepsis leads to septic shock, organ failure, and death. According to the CDC, 1.7 million adults develop sepsis annually, and at least 350,000 sepsis patients die in hospitals or hospice settings each year.

The Three Stages of Sepsis

Most cases of sepsis begin with a bacterial infection, especially those in the lungs, intestines, Urinary tract, or in the skin. The bacteria most commonly connected to sepsis include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
  • E. coli
  • Streptococcus

Sepsis typically progresses through 3 stages but can accelerate very quickly. Because sepsis often advances quickly, it’s considered a medical emergency even in stage 1. The following stages detail the progression of sepsis:

  • In stage 1, the infected individual may become lethargic, experience loss of appetite, and develop a fever and high heart rate. They may also have a drop in blood pressure and experience shortness of breath, clamminess, shaking, chills, and agitation or disorientation. They may develop a hemorrhagic rash which is actually small clusters of blood spots below the surface of the skin.
  • Stage 2 is severe sepsis, requiring intensive care. The immune response begins to damage the body’s healthy tissue and attack the organs. Symptoms may vary depending on which organs sustain damage. The kidneys are the most common organ to fail, but the liver, lungs, heart, and central nervous system may also sustain damage.
  • Stage 3 is known as septic shock and occurs when the body experiences a sudden drop in blood pressure. Septic shock is fatal if left untreated and has a mortality rate of 30-40% with treatment. Survivors may suffer lingering impacts such as a higher risk of future septic infections and cognitive impairment.

Why Is Sepsis a Significant Problem for Elderly Individuals?

As people age, their immune systems become less effective at fighting infections. At the same time, elderly individuals are more likely to contract infections. In nursing homes, infections are common, including respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, and infected bedsores—all of which sometimes lead to sepsis. Chronic diseases common in the elderly, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and COPD, all increase the chances of infections and sepsis. COVID-19 commonly led to sepsis fatalities among elderly populations in nursing homes in 2020.

The initial signs of illness and infection can be easily missed in nursing homes and care facilities since infection symptoms may present differently in the elderly, causing lethargy, confusion, and disorientation—all of which may appear as normal signs of aging. When caregivers fail to promptly diagnose and treat infections in the elderly, sepsis can set in and escalate quickly, leading to organ damage and death. Elderly patients and nursing home residents require fast, aggressive treatment for sepsis. 

Proper monitoring and vigilant care to prevent infections is the best way to protect elderly loved ones from infections and sepsis in care facility settings. A phoenix nursing home abuse lawyer can help navigate a potential elder abuse lawsuit affected by sepsis.

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