Sepsis in the Elderly

Sepsis occurs when the body tries to fight off an infection or type of inflammation. When a severe infection invades the bloodstream, the body releases chemicals in an attempt to get rid of the infection and repair the body. At that point, the entire body becomes inflamed. That is why sepsis can lead to organ failure and can often be fatal.

While sepsis can occur in anyone at any age, the elderly are especially susceptible because their bodies may already be weak and cannot fight off infection as well. It’s estimated that there are more than one million sepsis cases in the United States every year with 250,000 fatal cases. If sepsis is caught early and treated, patients can survive.

Signs of Sepsis

In order to best understand sepsis, you need to recognize the three stages. Each stage differs in severity.

  • Stage 1. During this stage a patient may experience a temperature greater than 101.3 or less than 95 degrees as well as a rapid heart rate of over 90 beats per minute and a rapid rate of respiration of more than 20 breaths per minute.
  • Stage 2. A patient experiencing stage two sepsis likely has a tough time breathing as well as stomach pains. There is also a decrease in urine output, changes in a patient’s mental state and the heart pumping at an abnormal speed and rate.
  • Stage 3. Stage 3 is often referred to as septic shock. When the above symptoms go unnoticed, septic shock can occur. The most severe symptom is a dramatic drop in blood pressure. When this happens, the result can be fatal.

What Causes Sepsis?

Any infection can lead to sepsis, especially in elderly patients. As mentioned above, they are more susceptible because of their weakened immune systems. Pre-existing conditions can also play a role in developing sepsis. Anyone who has had a catheter, breathing tube, or any other invasive apparatus is at a higher risk for sepsis because the risk for infection is greater due to the fact that a foreign object is being placed in the body.

Although any infection can lead to sepsis, it is most commonly associated with the following types of infections:

  • Kidney
  • Bloodstream
  • Abdominal

Sepsis can also be a result of pneumonia, influenza, or a urinary tract infection. Untreated bedsores can also lead to sepsis. This is why sepsis is so prevalent in nursing homes that don’t provide adequate care. If a loved one in a nursing home develops bedsores that are not being treated, you should contact the management staff to bring that to their attention so it doesn’t lead to something more serious.

Treating Sepsis

The key to effectively treat sepsis is to do it quickly. Any delay can be the difference between life and death.

  • IV Antibiotics are needed to treat sepsis. This needs to start upon diagnosis in order to prevent further complications. At first, a broad spectrum of antibiotics is given until blood test results come in. Depending on the results, the doctor may choose to change the antibiotics to better treat the type of infection that has developed. IV fluids are also given to help regulate body temperature.
  • Vasopressors. Vasopressor medicines are given after IV fluids to increase blood pressure are given and prove not to be effective. Vasopressor medications work to constrict blood vessels and increase blood pressure.
  • Other medications. Low doses of corticosteroids as well as insulin to maintain stable blood sugar levels may also be prescribed. In some cases, doctors will also prescribe painkillers or sedatives.

Depending on the severity of the sepsis case, a patient may also be put on oxygen to help with breathing and lessen the stress on other organs. Dialysis to help with kidney function is also another option. In some cases, surgery may also be needed to get rid of the source of the infection.

How to Avoid Sepsis

Since sepsis is a condition that results from the body responding to an infection, the only way to avoid sepsis is to avoid the infections that cause it. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Get vaccinated. Since sepsis cases can stem from the flu and pneumonia, it is important for those at risk to get vaccinated. According to a CDC study, 35% of sepsis cases were a result of pneumonia. But, only 20% of those at risk ages 65 and under were vaccinated against the infection while 60% of those 65 and older got their pneumonia vaccine. In order to lessen the risk, a pneumonia vaccine as well as a flu shot is recommended.
  • Clean skin wounds promptly. Cleaning skin wounds, especially of those who are diabetic, can help to reduce the risk of sepsis.
  • Treat urinary tract infections promptly. The CDC found that a quarter of sepsis cases resulted from a urinary tract infection. Treating these in a timely manner can reduce the risk of the infection spreading.

If you suspect you or a loved one is developing sepsis, seek medical attention immediately. Taking the wait and see approach can have deadly consequences.