What causes cellulitis in seniors?
In general, cellulitis occurs when bacteria (often Staphylococcus or Streptococcus) enter through breaks in the skin, such as:
- Puncture wounds
- Insect bites
- Dry and flaky patches
- Surgery incisions
Skin naturally becomes drier and thinner with age, and thus more susceptible to breaks, so seniors have a higher chance of developing cellulitis and other skin infections. As people grow older, their sweat glands and oil glands become less and less active. This causes the skin’s moisture level to drop, which can make it feel dry, rough, and itchy. If moisture levels aren’t replenished, elderly individuals will often end up scratching themselves to relieve itchiness, and these scratches provide another means for bacteria to enter and cause an infection. Older adults are also more likely to develop shingles and bedsores, which each create a way for bacteria to enter the skin. In some cases, cellulitis can develop even without a break in the skin. This generally occurs when someone experiences chronic swelling, which is common among elderly individuals.
Another reason why seniors often develop cellulitis is because the immune system tends to naturally weaken over time, and a weakened immune system can leave someone more vulnerable to infection. Many conditions common in older adults, such as diabetes and cancer, can weaken the immune system even further, as can certain medications. Poor circulation — which can result from common conditions like congestive heart failure, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension — can also increase someone’s risk of infection, since decreased blood flow can slow the healing process.
If left untreated
It’s important to seek treatment for your aging loved one as soon as you notice signs of cellulitis or another skin infection. If cellulitis is caught in the early stages of infection, it can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics. Seniors often require intravenous antibiotics, as opposed to oral antibiotics, since it’s more difficult for them to digest and absorb medications taken by mouth. If cellulitis is left untreated, the infection can spread to your loved one’s bloodstream, lymph nodes, or deeper tissues and develop into a life-threatening condition that requires emergency care. Plus, recurrent cases of cellulitis can damage the lymphatic drainage system and cause permanent swelling in the affected area of the body.
If you’re concerned that your elderly loved one may have cellulitis or another skin infection, contact DispatchHealth by phone or through our website or mobile app to request care. Our team will arrive within just a few hours, and your loved one can continue relaxing at home while they wait.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on October 3rd, 2019